Shortly after rolling into the central Malian town of Koro to detain a leader of an ethnic militia suspected of massacring about 160 villagers, a pickup truck of army soldiers was swarmed by hostile residents.
Video provided to Reuters by a senior member of the Dan Na Ambassagou militia appears to show the troops beating a retreat amid a hail of rocks and angry chants.
The episode last weekend, which was confirmed by a local mayor, was an embarrassing blow to the state’s authority in central Mali, where Islamist insurgents have been capitalizing on spiraling communal conflicts to recruit new members and extend their reach.
Government and army spokespeople did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the incident in Koro.
Mali’s prime minister and his entire government resigned on Thursday after legislators discussed bringing a motion of no confidence because of the Mali massacre and a failure to disarm militias or beat back militants.
“The government’s failure to … rein in militia groups is now coming home to roost,” said Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch’s West Africa director. “It’s now threatening the very authority of the state.”
Western governments, including former colonial power France and the United States, are alarmed by the rise of jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in West Africa’s lawless Sahel region.
They have deployed thousands of elite troops there to make sure it does not become a new Islamist haven following the losses inflicted on the groups in the Middle East.
Governments across the Sahel have also tacitly outsourced part of the fight against jihadists to local self-defense groups, many of them intent chiefly on settling ethnic scores.
However, the killings of the villagers on March 23, Mali’s worst ethnic bloodletting in living memory, show what can go wrong when governments turn a blind eye to vigilante groups in order to repel jihadists.
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had ordered the Dan Na Ambassagou — an anti-jihadi, ethnic Dogon group — disbanded after suspected members stormed the two villages, Ogossagou and Welingara, inhabited mainly by Fulani herders.
Most of the deaths occurred in Ogossagou, where gunmen left the charred bodies of women and children smoldering in their homes.
The United Nations has sent rights experts to investigate the killings. The International Criminal Court said the crimes could fall under its jurisdiction.
Dan Na Ambassagou denies involvement in the killings and is refusing to lay down weapons it says it needs to defend Dogon farmers against jihadists, whose ranks consist largely of Fulanis.
“When there are two people who are in conflict … you can’t take the weapon from one and leave the other with his,” a senior militia member, Marcelin Guenguere, told Reuters on Wednesday.
Forcibly disarming Dan Na Ambassagou “could provoke a rebellion that will not be so easily contained”, he said.
The shaky footage provided by Guenguere purports to show dozens of people, some wearing floppy brown caps sported by Dogon hunters, yelling and gesticulating at the soldiers as they climb onto the back of the pickup and drive off.
Reuters could not independently authenticate the video.
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