Residents accuse Mali army of killing at least 25 civilians

Malian soldiers killed at least 25 civilians in the central Mopti region last week, a civic association and residents said on Tuesday, as concerns rose over alleged abuses during counterterror operations in an area where extremists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group have carried out attacks.

Mali's government confirmed the existence of three graves discovered by residents about 7km away from the village of Nantaka and said it would investigate.

Soldiers detained several men on June 13 and released all but 25 ethnic Fulani, according to a resident who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his security.

The soldiers who came to Nantaka buried the 25 men after killing them, said Ibrahim Thiokari of the Fulani association Tabital Pulaku.

The West African nation's defence minister, Tiena Coulibaly, acknowledged that residents were blaming members of the armed forces. The army chief of staff was visiting the area on Tuesday.

"The minister reiterates his determination and strong will to fight against impunity and to engage the Malian army in the strict respect of the convention of human rights and international humanitarian rights in the conduct of operations," the minister's statement said.

Human rights groups have expressed concern about increasing allegations against Mali's armed forces as they carry out counterterrorism operations in the Mopti region, where the Fulani are the majority and some have been recruited by extremist groups.

The vast majority of civilians reported killed in the operations have been Fulani.

"We welcome the investigations. However, those promises should not be empty. The government has to follow up with the investigations and ensure those involved are held to account, and that the family members know about it," said Corinne Dufka, associate director of West Africa for Human Rights Watch. "The fact that these incidents keep happening suggests very clearly that security force members feel they can act with impunity."

Dufka told The Associated Press that she has tallied the bodies of 60 people in at least seven common graves after such operations in 2017 and this year.

There also have been several cases of torture and disappearances, she said.

"The abuses only serve to push the villagers into the hands of abusive armed Islamist groups," she added.

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