Malian soldiers shot dead at least one villager and injured others after a detonation they mistook for an attack in a region plagued by jihadist violence, residents and a military source said Tuesday.
The shooting took place on Monday in Dioura in central Mali, where a jihadist attack on 17 March killed 26 soldiers.
In a statement, the military said a group of soldiers, on their way back to base after fetching water from the village, were “surprised” by mortar test fire “which they believed to be an enemy attack as the shells fell near them.”
The soldiers “opened fire on a group of people that was, unfortunately, present at the moment,” killing one civilian and injuring four, it said.
One witness said the shooting was sparked by a soldier dropping a grenade, which exploded, and spooked nearby troops.
“In the panic, civilians were hit, and two died on the spot,” resident Babrou Niang told AFP. Four injured people were evacuated by helicopter.
Allaye Toure, a local leader, said “the soldiers thought it was an attack against them, that is why they opened fire.”
Not far from Dioura, at the village of Petedougou near the border with Burkina Faso, Malian soldiers with backing from France’s anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane force, “neutralised” 15 suspected jihadists on Sunday, military sources said.
They also seized motorcycles, arms, explosives, ammunition and took a number of prisoners, the Malian army said in a statement.
Extremists linked to Al-Qaeda took control of Mali’s vast desert north in early 2012, but were largely driven out in a French-led military operation that began in January 2013.
Huge areas however are still in the grip of lawlessness, despite a 2015 peace agreement with armed groups.
Since then, the jihadist threat has shifted from the north towards the more densely-populated centre of the country, where it has fanned the flames of local ethnic conflicts which date back years.