BAMAKO, Mali (AFP) — Malian troops killed at least 16 members of an Islamist sect, officials said yesterday, but it was unclear if the victims were armed or were connected to the jihadist rebellion in the country's north.
The incident occurred Saturday night in Diabali, a remote agricultural town in central Mali, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.
The army opened fire on a vehicle after the driver failed to obey commands to stop, local military sources, police and security ministry officials said. No troops were injured.
Those killed were Malian and Mauritanian and the army was forced to open fire because soldiers presumed the travellers were militant Islamists, officials said.
"Sixteen members of the Dawa sect who would not stop their vehicle after warning shots were fired were treated as enemies in Diabali Saturday night," a security ministry official said, updating the previous toll of 14 dead.
Dawa has several hundred followers in northern Mali and is present across the Sahel region including in neighbouring Mauritania. Iyad Ag Ghaly, who heads the Ansar Dine Islamist group, is supposed to have been a member.
There were no immediate reports indicating whether those killed were armed.
Questions lingered Sunday over the shooting, including whether it was a deadly overreaction by the army or a successful operation that thwarted a possible Islamist incursion into central Mali.
Malian troops are on high alert after Islamists seized control of more than half of the country following a disastrous army coup in March in Bamako that led to political chaos and a collapsed military presence in the north.
A Diabali resident said earlier those killed had been on their way to a "religious meeting", but did not give details.
The security ministry official said other members of the sect had been arrested after participating in a meeting last week in Mali.
The shooting came after rebels captured on September 1 the city of Douentza, located along a rough east-west line bifurcating the country, marking the southernmost town seized by Islamists.
In the areas under their control the Islamists have enforced strict Islamic law, whipping or stoning to death transgressors and destroying ancient World Heritage sites they consider "idolatrous".