Antananarivo - At least 161 people, including nearly a dozen soldiers, were killed in cattle-rustling violence in Madagascar last year, authorities say.
Theft of the much-prized humped zebu cattle has surged in recent years on the Indian Ocean island, where hunting the animals is a rural tradition among young men seeking to prove their virility.
The cattle are also stolen to be sold for money to the nearby island nation of Comoros, despite a government ban.
"We have had a rather heavy toll: 11 killed and about 30 wounded among soldiers and some 100 dead, 150 to be precise, for the dahalos (rustlers)," said Madagascan army General Beni Xavier Rasolofonirina.
"In a context in which the gendarmes were not able to carry out their internal security functions" the army launched a five-month "pacification operation" that mobilised 1 300 soldiers, the general said.
A symbol of wealth, zebu are at the heart of local culture in southern Madagascar, where they are eaten only at weddings or special celebrations, sacrificed for ancestor worship or in burial rituals.
The tradition of stealing them has fuelled inter-communal violence, with the army accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings and razing villages that are suspected of sheltering cattle rustlers.
Members of the island nation's civil society have denounced the soldiers' use of violence during these operations, with Madagascar's defence minister admitting to military "blunders".
"We leave it to the gendarmerie to carry out investigations if there are complaints and if they are substantiated it is up to the courts to deliver a punishment," Rasolofonirina said.