Yet another setback for Mali’s government – a significant and tragic mistake that already seems to be snowballing into a catastrophe:
Sixteen Muslim preachers from a moderate sect were shot dead in central Mali as they traveled by road to a religious conference, the Malian and Mauritanian governments said Sunday. Early reports indicate that the men’s long beards aroused the suspicion of Mali’s military, which confused them for the extremists who have taken over the nation’s north.
The preachers were heading to the gathering in Bamako when they were executed in Diabaly, 430 kilometers (267 miles) north of the capital. The dead included at least 12 nationals of Mauritania, the Mauritanian government said in a government communique that blames Malian security forces for executing the preachers. A relative of two of the victims and a Mali police official confirmed this version of events.
See the full article for statements from the Mauritanian and Malian governments. The Mauritanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement is available in Arabic here and a press release from the Malian government is available in French here.
Google Maps has no location for “Diabaly,” but does map “Diabal” in the region of Segou.
Some sources have said that the preachers were members of the “Dawa society,” while others have identified them as members of the South Asia-based Tablighi Jamaat, which is also sometimes known in Arabic as Jama’a al Tabligh wa al Da’wa, roughly translated “The Society for Delivering the Message and Calling People to Islam” – da’wa meaning the call to Islam.
Malian authorities have acted swiftly to manage the political fallout from the incident. The country’s foreign minister has traveled to Mauritania to personally express his condolences, and the government has launched an investigation of the incident. This may be enough to assuage anger in Nouakchott.
The Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali quickly condemned the Malian government and portrayed the incident as a trigger for wider conflict:
“With this barbaric act that was not warranted, I don’t see any future for Malian army or the Malian government because we are going to continue our southward push to Bamako. This was a declaration of war,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, a senior Islamist speaking on behalf [the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, MUJWA.]
This threat, I think, deserves to be taken seriously.
How did such an incident occur? The details may remain murky, but there are at least two points to be made. The first is that tensions on the ground seem to be running high, making townspeople – who in one version reportedly (Arabic) seized the preachers and handed them over to the army – and soldiers prone to shooting first and asking questions later. The second is that the political confusion and tension in Bamako may filter down to soldiers, especially ones posted near the zone controlled by northern Islamists. With things unsettled in Bamako, soldiers in places like Diabaly may be quicker to act impulsively.
In any case, the incident has brought the Malian government both a diplomatic problem and a new source of contention with the northern Islamists.