BAMAKO (Reuters) – Armed men killed at least 134 Fulani pastors in central Mali on Saturday, a local mayor said, the most deadly attack of recent times in a region that is recovering from the worsening of ethnic and jihadist violence.
The assaults on the villages of Ogossagou and Welingara took place as a mission of the United States Security Council visited Mali in search of solutions to the violence that killed hundreds of civilians last year and is spreading in the region of the Sahel of West Africa.
Moulaye Guindo, mayor of the nearby city of Bankass, said that armed men dressed as traditional hunters of Donzo surrounded and attacked Ogossagou around 4 am (0400 GMT).
"We are temporarily in 134 bodies recovered from the gendarmes," Guindo told Reuters by telephone from Ogossagou.
He said another nearby Fulani village, Welingara, was also attacked, causing "a number" of deaths, but he didn't know how many.
Security sources say the dead included pregnant women, children and the elderly.
An Ogossagou resident, who asked not to be identified, said the attack appears to be a retaliation for Al Qaeda's affiliation request on Friday for a raid last week that killed 23 soldiers.
That group said the raid was a return for the violence of the Mali army and the militia against the Fulani.
Jihadist groups linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have exploited ethnic rivalries in Mali and neighboring countries, Burkina Faso and Niger, in recent years to increase recruitment and make vast areas of land virtually ungovernable.
The French forces intervened in Mali, a former French colony, in 2013 to push back the jihadist advance from the northern desert, but since then the militants have reorganized and extended their presence in central Mali and in the neighboring countries.
About 4,500 French soldiers remain based in the wider Sahel, most of them in Mali. The United States also has hundreds of troops in the region.
Security Council ambassadors met with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and other government officials on Friday evening to discuss violence and the slow implementation of a 2015 peace agreement with non-Islamic armed groups.
"A clear sense of frustration among many members of the Security Council at the pace of the implementation of the peace agreement in Mali," Britain's representative on mission, Stephen Hickey, wrote on Twitter. "The Security Council is ready to impose sanctions on those who prevent its implementation".
Additional reporting by Souleymane Ag Anara; Written by Aaron Ross; Editing by Angus MacSwan