Days after a massacre that left dozens of people in central Mali dead, renewed fighting believed to be between the Fulani and Dogon ethnic groups risks plunging the country deeper into a cycle of intercommunal violence.
Gunmen on Wednesday targeted two ethnic Dogon villages in the Bankass district of the Mopti region, according to the mayor of the area.
“Unidentified armed men on motorcycles are surrounding the village and firing at people,” Moulaye Guindo told Reuters news agency via telephone, adding that the attack was still ongoing in the villages of Ogoboro and Nomopere Bomba.
Guindo said there were people wounded who had been taken to a local hospital, but had no information on the number of casualties.
The attacks took place less than 50km away from the village of Sobane-Kou, the site of an hours-long deadly assault overnight on Sunday, which the United Nations condemned as an act of “unspeakable barbarity”.
Early estimates put the death toll in the attack on the largely ethnic Dogon enclave at 95, but Malian authorities on Wednesday revised the figure down to 35. But local leaders insisted that close to 100 were killed.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from the Malian capital, Bamako, said he had also received reports of attacks on Fulani.
“Al Jazeera has spoken to some of the Dogon militias who are now attacking a Fulani village and also an area they say armed groups are in hiding – armed groups they are referring to as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JMIN), a group that has called on Fulanis for revenge attacks against the Dogon community and also against any representative of the state,” he said.
The location and name of the Fulani village was not immediately clear.
Ethnic conflict between the Fulani and Dogon have surged after the emergence of the predominantly Fulani JMIN in 2015. Deep grievances over land were at the heart of the rivalry between the Fulani, who are herders, and Dogon, who are farmers.
On May 16, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, announced it had recorded “at least 488 deaths” in attacks on Fulanis in the central regions of Mopti and Segou since January 2018.
Armed Fulanis “caused 63 deaths” among civilians in the Mopti region over the same period, it said.
In the bloodiest raid, about 160 Fulani villagers were slaughtered on March 23 at Ogossagou, near the border with Burkina Faso, by suspected Dogon hunters. The attack forced the resignation of the then-prime minister and government.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita condemned Sunday’s violence, saying “this country cannot be led by a cycle of revenge and vendetta”. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boubou Cisse visited Sobane-Kou to “convey the support of the nation and check that security measures have been strengthened”, according to his office.
On Wednesday, authorities issued a statement saying six people had been detained “following routine checks”. Revising the death toll down to 35, the statement said 24 children were among those killed.
That initial toll was based on information from soldiers and the district mayor who visited the village, which is also known as Sobane-Da.
The new “number is based on a painstaking count carried out by a team comprising officials from the [Malian] civil protection force, forensic doctors [and] the public prosecutor of Mopti” region, the statement said.
But Ali Dolo, mayor of the district in which Sunday’s attack took place, told Reuters the revised death toll did not take account of charred body parts that had yet to be identified. In comments to Al Jazeera, Dolo insisted that the number of the people killed was higher than the one given by the government.
‘Troops fail to protect civilians’
Malians have grown increasingly frustrated by failures of Keita’s government to protect them from both ethnic reprisals and armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) group.
Mali, a former French colony, has been in turmoil since Tuareg rebels and loosely allied fighters took over its north in 2012. French forces intervened in 2013 to push back their advance, but the fighters have since regrouped, tapping into ethnic rivalries to recruit new members and launching attacks across the region.
Al Jazeera’s Haque said the violence in Mopti was occurring despite the strong presence of Malian and international troops.
“There is an EU training mission, there are German and Dutch soldiers, there is an airbase, where the French are based, and there are also Malian troops. They have all the means to intervene and yet time and time again these forces have failed to protect the population,” he said.
“The prime minister went there to try to reassure the population, to say that the Malian state, the Malian soldiers are on the ground. But of course, that’s the crux of the issue – the Malian soldiers, as well as a UN peacekeeping force of 14,000 soldiers, have failed to fulfil their mandate which is to protect the civilian population.”
Analysts said public confidence in the government had slumped, spurring the creation of armed groups.
“The militias, rightly or wrongly, were created to respond to a need for security among people who no longer have any trust, or very little, in the effectiveness of the institutional responses,” Baba Dakono, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told AFP news agency.