Malian soldiers shot dead at least one villager and injured others after an explosion they mistook for an attack in a region plagued by jihadist violence, residents and a military source said Tuesday.
The shooting took place Monday, April 8 in Dioura in the Mopti region of central Mali.
In a statement, the military said a group of soldiers, on their way back to their base after fetching water from the village, were “surprised” by mortar test fire which they “believed to be an enemy attack as the shells fell near them.”
The soldiers “opened fire on a group of people that was, unfortunately, present at the time” – killing one civilian and injuring four, it said.
One witness said the shooting was sparked by a soldier dropping a grenade, which exploded, and spooked nearby troops.
“In the panic, civilians were hit, and two died on the spot,” resident Babrou Niang told AFP. Four injured people were evacuated by helicopter.
Allaye Toure, a local leader, said “the soldiers thought it was an attack against them, that is why they opened fire.”
On March 17, 23 Malian soldiers were killed in a raid on the army camp in Dioura. The Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM) later claimed responsibility for the assault on what it described as “barracks of the G5 [Sahel] forces,” saying it was in response to attacks on the Fulani people.
JNIM formed in March 2017, when several smaller groups including the Sahara branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and Al-Mourabitoun merged. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Operation near Burkina Faso border
Not far from Dioura, at the village of Petedougou near the border with Burkina Faso, Malian soldiers with carried out an operation earlier this week against insurgents alongside France’s Operation Barkhane force, military sources said.
The Armed Forces of Mali said 15 “terrorists” were “neutralized” and 14 motorcycles, weapons, ammunition and explosives were seized during the April 7 operation. A number of militants were captured.
On April 2, French military Doctor Captain Marc Laycuras was killed when an improvised explosive device struck the armored vehicle in which he was travelling during an operation against insurgents. The incident occurred near the border with Burkina Faso, reportedly in the Foulséré area of the Mopti Region, around 135 km Gossi, where the Barkhane force is constructing a new base.
The recent unrest in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012 with Tuareg separatist uprising against the state, which was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north.
France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, but the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, sometimes winning over local populations by providing basic services and protection from bandits.
The insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali, and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Large swathes of the country remain outside government control, despite a 2015 peace accord designed to isolate the Islamists.
The French mission in Mali evolved in August 2014 into the current Operation Barkhane, which has 4,500 personnel deployed with a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel region, with 2,700 soldiers in Mali to support poorly-equipped local military forces.
Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside the U.N. Minusma stabilization mission in Mali, which began in 2013 and has about 12,000 troops and 1,750 police deployed, as well as the G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel.
With reporting from AFP