BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Clashes in northern Mali that killed 31 people last week appear to have involved local Tuareg and Peul communities, the country's U.N. mission and Human Rights Watch said Monday, not a terrorist attack as the government said.
Mali's security minister, Sada Samake, claimed on state TV Sunday night that al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists ambushed two vehicles full of civilians on Thursday. State TV said 25 people were killed in the ambush, along with six others in a Tuareg camp not far from the ambush site more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Gao, near the Niger border.
The extremist group Samake blamed — the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO — controlled Gao when Mali's northern half fell to Islamic extremists after a military coup in March 2012. A French-led military intervention launched in 2013 drove extremists out of northern Mali's cities.
U.N. spokesman Olivier Salgado on Monday stood by an earlier mission statement that called the violence "inter-communal clashes" that have long plagued the region and said Malian security forces had arrested suspects. "For us, this is intercommunal violence," he said.
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Corinne Dufka said Monday that sources in the region indicated the government's description of the violence was misleading. She blamed "a cycle of communal violence that long predates the most recent dynamic involving armed Islamist groups" and urged the government to bring the perpetrators to justice.
If the U.N. and Human Rights Watch are correct, last week saw the most significant incident between the Tuareg and Peul communities in the area in years.
On Nov. 24, the same day Malians went to the polls to elect a new legislature, officials reported that more than a dozen ethnic Peul were feared dead following clashes with Tuaregs near the Niger border.
The Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad said Monday that Thursday's violence was a terror attack by MUJAO members in motorcycles and trucks who ambushed two vehicles transporting Tuareg civilians.
NMLA spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher said the NMLA responded to the attack on Saturday and Sunday, killing six MUJAO terrorists and capturing two.
Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.