BAMAKO – Moussa Tolofidie didn’t think twice when nearly 100 jihadis on motorbikes gathered in his village in central Mali last week.
A peace agreement signed last year between some armed groups and the community in the Bankass area had largely held, even if the gunmen would sometimes enter the town to preach Shariah to the villagers. But on this Sunday in June, everything changed — the jihadis began killing people.
“They started with an old man about 100 years old ... then the sounds of the weapons began to intensify around me and then at one moment I heard a bullet whistling behind my ear. I felt the earth spinning, I lost consciousness and fell to the ground,” Tolofidie, a 28-year-old farmer told The Associated Press by phone Friday in Mopti town, where he was receiving medical care.
“When I woke up it was dark, around midnight. There were bodies of other people on top of me. I smelled blood and smelled burnt things and heard the sounds of some people still moaning,” he said.
At least 132 people were killed in several villages in the Bankass area of central Mali during two days of attacks last weekend, according to the government, which blames the Group to Support Islam and Muslims jihadi rebels linked to al-Qaida.
The attack — the deadliest since mutinous soldiers toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita nearly two years ago — shows that Islamic extremist violence is spreading from Mali’s north to more central areas, analysts have said.
The conflict-riddled country has been battling extremist violence for a decade since jihadis seized control of key northern cities in 2012 and tried to take over the capital. They were pushed back by a French-led military operation the following year but have since regained ground.
The Associated Press spoke to several survivors on Friday who had sought treatment at a hospital in Mopti and were from the villages of Diallassagou, Dianweli and Dessagou. People described hearing gunfire and jihadis shouting, “Allahu akbar”, Arabic for “God is great,” as they ran into the forest to save their lives.
Mali’s government blamed the attacks on the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, or JNIM, which is backed by al-Qaida, although the group denied responsibility in a statement on Friday.
The United States and France condemned the attacks and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) issued a statement on Twitter saying the violence has caused casualties and displaced the population.
Conflict analysts say the fact that the attacks happened in an area where local peace agreements were signed could signify the end of the fragile accords.
“The resurgence of tension is perhaps linked to the expiration of these local agreements but also can be linked to the intensification of military operations by the defense forces,” said Baba Dakono, director of the Citizen Observatory on Governance and Security, a local civil society group.
Ene Damango, a mechanic from Dialassagou, fled his village when the shooting started, but he said his uncle was shot in the leg and severely wounded.
“When I returned to the village. I discovered the carnage."