World Bulletin / News Desk
Imam Elhadji Sekou Ba was one of the few people in his village of Barkerou who dared to speak out against the rise of militants in central Mali, denouncing in his sermons the young men taking up arms in the name of religion.
Last Thursday, shortly after dinner, he was gunned down on his doorstep.
Locals suspect the killing was carried out by the Massina Liberation Front (MLF), a new group blamed for a wave of attacks that is shifting Mali's three-year-old conflict from the remote desert north ever closer to its populous south.
The emergence of the new group, recruiting among central Mali's marginalised Fulani ethnic minority, has sown panic among residents, forced some officials to flee, and undermined the efforts of a 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission to stabilise the West African state.
Inspired by veteran jihadist Amadou Koufa, a radical preacher from the central Malian town of Mopti, the MLF has introduced a volatile new ethnic element to the conflict in a nation riddled with tribal tensions.
Security experts fear that the rise of a group among the Fulani - whose 20 million members are spread across West and Central Africa - could regionalise the violence.
"The risk is that links develop between Fulanis throughout the region and it could be the next major regional conflict," said Aurelien Tobie, a conflict adviser formerly based in the Malian capital Bamako.
"Everywhere Fulanis are marginalised, they have a strong identity and there are connections between them."
The assassination was the latest in a wave of killings in the Mopti region targetting those opposed to Mali's array of groups. Many of the militants come from the ranks of fighters that seized the northern two-thirds of Mali in 2012 alongside Tuareg rebels.
A French-led military intervention in early 2013 scattered the insurgents, after Paris said the enclave could become a launchpad for terror attacks on Europe. Some militants have since gone to Mali's centre belt to regroup and recruit, using it as a staging post to strike at areas in the south once considered safe
During the occupation of northern Mali, Mopti was the last bastion of government power before the lawless desert. That image was destroyed this month when armed men attacked a hotel in nearby Sevare and killed at least 12 people, including five United Nations contractors.
One of the attackers wore an explosive belt that did not detonate, in the first suicide attempt outside the north.
The army blames the MLF for the siege and at least two other attacks in Mali's centre and south which are hindering attempts by the government and the U.N. peacekeeping force to restore order.
The Sevare attack has also been claimed by a group led by veteran Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which has rebranded itself as Al Qaeda in West Africa.
"The strategy of those loyal to Koufa appears to be to empty the region of administrative leaders, government officials and others collaborating with the army to both establish their authority and, perhaps, recruit more easily," said Corinne Dufka, West Africa Director at Human Rights Watch.
Mali's former defence minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, said the army was struggling to contain the rapid emergence of the militants. The government needed to improve intelligence gathering in the region and check on mosques.
Aba Ibrahim Ba, a Fulani mayor from the commune where the imam was assasinated, said the government had done little to respond to the recent assassinations and the local population was in panic. He said he had been forced into hiding.
"Besides reaching people by word of mouth, I cannot do anything else to stop this as it would be too risky," he said.
Reprisals seen to be targeting the Fulani community could play into the hands of extremists.
Guillaume Ngefa, director of human rights in the U.N. mission MINUSMA, said at least 50 people had been arrested with alleged ties to MLF since December.
This prompted complaints from a Fulani organisation that they were being targeted indiscriminately, he added.
Alghabass Ag Intalla, a senior member of the Tuareg-led rebel coalition Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and a former leader of Ansar Dine, said there was reason to fear the radicalisation of some Fulanis.
"We see Fulanis as very marginalised in Mali, even from their own leaders," he told Reuters. "They are forming a rebellion."Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Ağustos 2015, 09:56