Central Mali Is Now the Nation’s Deadliest Region, Group Says

(Bloomberg) -- A mix of jihadist violence, communal conflict and suspected army abuse have rendered central Mali the country’s deadliest region as the influence of Islamist insurgents and separatist rebels in the north is spreading, according to a human-rights group.

Mali’s government has been struggling to restore state authority in the north and center since a 2012 Islamist insurgency that’s reverberated across West Africa. More than 500 people have been killed in attacks or mass executions in the central Mopti region during the first six months of the year, the International Federation for Human Rights said in a report published Tuesday, citing testimonies from civilians and local leaders.

Soldiers were involved in at least six of the attacks, the Paris-based group said in the report. In one incident, several of 67 people escorted by soldiers were later found in a mass grave. The recent violence has forced an estimated 34,000 people to flee their homes and aid organizations are struggling to provide food, the Norwegian Refugee Council said in a statement Wednesday.

A loose alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamist insurgents seized large swathes of the north in 2012. A French military intervention succeeded in pushing back the insurgents a year later, but they’re now moving into Mali’s more densely populated center, where they stoke ethnic tensions through the targeted assassinations of local leaders.

In some villages, jihadists have enforced Sharia law, closed public schools and are forcing women to cover their heads, Amy Dicko, an activist from the nomadic ethnic Peul group, said by phone Monday from Mali’s capital, Bamako.

“In my village there are no marriages as the jihadists have banned people from celebrating” while those who don’t obey are abducted and sometimes killed, said Dicko.

Since the 2015 emergence in the Mopti region of a jihadist movement led by the Peul preacher Amadou Koufa, disputes between herders and Bambara and Dogon farmers have repeatedly turned violent. Already tense relations between ethnic groups have been exacerbated by accusations of the military cooperating with self-defense militias in the fight against the jihadists, who recruit mainly among young Peul herders, said Florent Geel, head of the rights group’s Africa desk.

‘Global Jihad’

“These are herders caught up in a global jihad, which in reality has much less appeal than the struggle for access to grazing land, the unlawful arrest of a family member or state corruption,” Geel said by phone from Paris.

An investigation into some incidents mentioned in the report are underway and “soldiers implicated in any attacks will be sanctioned,” Defense Ministry spokesman Boubacar Diallo said.

While some of the military perpetrators have been identified and removed from their positions, the failure to prosecute offenders has led the population, and specifically the Peul, to distrust state authority, Geel said.

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