At least 51 dead as gunmen attack several villages in northern Mali after arrest of rebel leaders

Gunmen attacked multiple villages in northern Mali killing at least 51 people in apparent retribution for the recent arrest of several rebel leaders, authorities said.

The latest violence took place in the volatile area along the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso where fighters linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda are active.

A note from the Asongo district administrator to the governor of the Gao region said houses were ransacked and burned to the ground and herds of livestock carried away.

“Provisional toll is 51 killed, several other injured,” the note said.

No group has yet taken responsibility for the attacks. Mali’s army spokesman Colonel Souleymane Dembele confirmed the attacks on Monday but gave no further details.

The attackers arrived on Sunday around 6pm local time 6:00pm in the communities of Ouatagouna and Karou, local official Oumar Cisse said. “Most of the victims were in front of their houses; others were going to the mosque,” The Associated Press quoted him.

A local official, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, told the AFP news agency that “20 civilians were massacred in Karou. Fourteen civilians were killed in Ouatagouna, and other civilians were killed in the hamlet of Daoutegeft”.

The assailants arrived on motorbike, taking the villagers by surprise, the official said.

The attack came a week after the arrest of two rebel leaders who had been denounced by residents of Ouattagouna and Karou.

Rebel groups seized control of cities in northern Mali back in 2012. With the help of French forces urban cities were taken back, but they quickly regrouped in rural areas and have continued to launch devastating attacks on military targets.

Civilians are increasingly coming under attack as well, with hundreds killed since January in a series of mass killings in villages near the border of Niger and Mali.

France, the former colonial power in the region, announced last month that it would be withdrawing more than 2,000 troops by early next year.

A statement from MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, condemned the “barbaric attacks” on Sunday and said the courts could prosecute such attacks on civilians as crimes against humanity.