BAMAKO (Reuters) - At least 16 Fulani herders have been killed in suspected ethnic clashes in central Mali, the government and local sources said on Sunday, underscoring the chronic instability blighting the West African nation ahead of elections next month.
Mali is expected to go to the polls at the end of July, but north of the capital Bamako has become a lawless scrubland used as a launch pad for jihadist attacks across West Africa that, coupled with local ethnic tensions, has made governing near impossible and the forthcoming elections difficult to manage.
Saturday's attack involved an attack on the village of Koumaga in the Mopti region, the government said.
"I confirm there were clashes between people from the same village (Koumaga), in the circle of Djenné (near Mopti). The army intervened to intervened and counted 16 dead for the moment," security spokesman Amadou Sangho told Reuters.
The government did not provide further details of the attack, but an organisation representing Fulani herders said on Sunday that close to 50 people were killed in Koumaga by Donzo hunters as part of ongoing clashes between the two groups that have long fought over land, grazing grounds and water rights.
"Shepherds, very young children with their animals in the bush, people returning ... to cultivate their fields, were cowardly murdered," said Abdoul Aziz Diallo, who runs Tabital Pulaaku, a Fulani association.
The government has made no sign of a delay to July's polls, but Saturday's violence comes after a turbulent month in the cotton- and gold-producing nation.
The defence ministry said last week that some of its soldiers were implicated in "gross violations" after the discovery of some mass graves in the centre of the country. The graves were found after a military crackdown on suspected jihadists and allied ethnic militia.
Mali has been in turmoil since Tuareg rebels and loosely allied Islamists took over its north in 2012, prompting French forces to intervene to push them back the following year. Those groups have since regained a foothold in the north and centre.
(Reporting By Adama Diarra, Souleymane Ag Anara and Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Edward McAllister/David Evans)