The death toll from Saturday’s attack by unknown gunmen on villagers in central Mali has risen to 157, a government spokesman said on Tuesday, confirming it as one of the worst recent atrocities in a country beset by ethnic violence.
The attack took place as a UN Security Council mission was visiting the West African gold-producing country to seek solutions to violence that has killed hundreds of civilians last year and is spreading across West Africa’s Sahel region.
An official from a nearby town said on Saturday that armed men, dressed as traditional Donzo hunters, attacked villages populated by rival Fulani herders, many of whom they suspect of harbouring Daesh militants - charges the Fulani deny.
The attack came less than a week after a deadly militant assault on an army post killed at least 23 soldiers, also in Mali’s central region. That attack was claimed by an al Qaeda-affiliate.
“The official death toll is 157,” said government spokesman Amadou Kotia. Officials on Saturday said that about 134 had been killed, though they expected that number to rise.
UN team to investigate massacre
The United Nations is deploying crime-scene investigators, human rights officers and a child protection expert to central Mali to investigate inter-communal violence over the weekend that killed more than 150 people, one-third of them children.
UN human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani says the massacre in Ogossagou, in Mali's Mopti region, mostly targeted people from the ethnic Fulani, or Peuhl, community.
She said Tuesday the "horrific attacks" signal a "spike in killings" in a cycle of violence in the region that has caused 600 deaths and displaced thousands since last March.
Militant groups linked to al Qaeda and Daesh have exploited ethnic rivalries such as those between Fulani and Donzo in Mali and its neighbours Burkina Faso and Niger in recent years to boost recruitment and render vast swathes of territory virtually ungovernable.
French forces intervened in Mali, a former French colony, in 2013 to push back Militants advance from the desert north but the militants have since regrouped and expanded their presence into central Mali and the neighbouring countries.
Some 4,500 French troops remain based in the wider Sahel, most of them in Mali. The United States also has hundreds of troops in the region.