The Malian government says it has ordered an investigation into whether soldiers killed dozens of people during attacks on two villages last week.
Armed men dressed in military fatigues raided the village of Binedama on Friday, killing 29 people including women and children, and burning down houses, according to officials. Two days earlier, attackers had killed 14 people in the village of Niangassadiou, the government said in a statement.
Both villages are in Mopti, a volatile region in the center of the country that has seen many attacks and tit-for-tat ethnic killings over the past few years.
In both cases, community leaders said attackers targeted members of the Fulani group – semi-nomadic herders who have been accused by rival farming communities of supporting local armed groups, making them targets of violence from ethnic vigilante militias and sometimes government forces.
Fulani association Tabital Pulaaku said all the victims were innocent residents. Last week, it accused Malian soldiers of carrying out both attacks, saying the troops surrounded Binedama in pick-up trucks before moving in, and attacked a trade fair at Niangassadiou.
The government acknowledged the accusation and said it had asked the military and the justice system to conduct the investigation.
“If it turned out that these killings were the work of national army members, matches matching the seriousness of these actions would be taken by the head of the military,” it said in its statement issued late on Sunday.
Human rights groups accused Malian armed forces of targeting people suspected of being armed group sympathisers and carrying out extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, torture and arbitrary arrests.
The government acknowledged some abuses by its forces in the past but also rejected many allegations made by rights groups. The military promised to investigate the charges.
On Friday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of the capital, Bamako, to demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was re-elected in 2018 for a second five-year term on a promise to bring peace in a country torn by armed groups and worsening violence.
Keita is struggling to maintain support amid a rapidly deteriorating security situation that has claimed thousands of lives, forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and devastated the economy.
On Monday, officials from the United Nations, West Africa and the African Union (AU) met Mahmoud Dicko, an influential Muslim leader behind the demonstrations.
A source close to the coalition organizing the protests, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP news agency: “The international community wanted to have information about our aims and then play the role of mediator, naturally.”
MINUSMA spokesman Olivier Salgado said the head of the Peace Mission, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, “along with representatives from regional organizations, met certain organisers (of Friday’s rally) but also with representatives of national authorities … to find ways of renewing dialogue.”
Mali has been in crisis since 2012 when Tuareg separatists launched a rebellion in the north, which was quickly commandeered by armed group fighters.
French forces intervened the following year to drive them back, but the fighters have regrouped and extended their operations into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, triggering a bloody conflict.