Islamists who control northern Mali extended their campaign of enforcing harsh Shariah law on Monday, amputating the hands and feet of four young men they accused of robbery in the main square at Gao, a principal town in the region.
“We cut their right hand and their left foot, in the city of Gao, at the Place de l’Indépendance,” Aliou Mahamar Touré, a professed Islamic commissioner with Mujao, an offshoot of Al Qaeda that controls Gao, said in a telephone interview. “We cut all that today. It is not us who ordered this. It is God.”
Monday’s amputations — the latest in a series of stringent punishments carried out by the Islamists, including a stoning, whippings and amputations — drew swift condemnation from local officials. And they came in a context of heightened confusion about who is in charge of Mali’s government, how to confront the Islamists in the north and the status of the disintegrating Malian Army.
On Monday, the Malian government in the south found itself on the defensive after 16 Muslim preachers, most of them from neighboring Mauritania, were shot dead at an army checkpoint late Saturday night while they were on their way to Mali’s capital, Bamako. The Mauritanian government, in an unusually angry statement published on the Web site of the official Mauritanian press agency, called the attack “a barbaric massacre” of “peaceful preachers” carried out by a “unit of the regular Malian Army.”
The apparently unprovoked shootings of clerics seemed certain to add to doubts about the discipline of what remains of the Malian Army and its ability to take back the north, which has been in the hands of the Islamists since the country’s regular soldiers were chased from the region in late March and early April.
Since then, the army has stood by while the Islamists have extended their control. The army has rejected offers of military assistance from regional powers, even as the country’s weak civilian government, shadowed by a military junta that took over in late March, appeared to accept those very offers last week. The interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, part of a government appointed with the junta’s approval, asked the grouping of West African states, Ecowas, in a letter last week for “five battalions, on the front line, to be gradually engaged in the control of the reconquered cities.”
But the Malian Army, in statements to French radio, appeared to reject even that mild request, as it has dismissed such suggestions of help in the past. Diplomats have said the army and the junta are fearful that outside troops could weaken their dominant positions in the country.
The exact circumstances of Saturday’s shootings, which occurred deep in rural Mali but in territory controlled by the government, remained unclear Monday evening. Mali’s government spokesman did not respond to calls, and an army spokesman refused to comment.
But with the Islamists increasingly well established in the north and appearing to be on the move southward, and with an undisciplined Malian Army that is largely standing by, there have been rising fears about possible Islamist incursions into the portion of Mali still controlled by the government.
It was against this backdrop that the shootings of the Muslim preachers, by edgy Malian troops, took place. The Mauritanian government denounced the shootings as “an unspeakable criminal act carried out in cold blood, without warning, notice or questioning, against preachers who had no other weapons but their faith.”
The Mauritanian government said the victims had nothing to do with northern Mali’s jihadist overlords, but in fact were “bringing a message of peace, fraternity and tolerance” to Mali.
In Gao, the real jihadists took their four young victims to the town center at midday Monday, according to a municipal counselor who saw the amputations, Abderahmane Oumarou Maïga. They tied them to pillars, “feet at the top, heads at the bottom,” Mr. Maïga said, “solidly attached.”
For “each one, they cut off their hand and foot,” said Mr. Maïga, using what he called “giant scissors,” which had been specially fabricated, under duress, by a local blacksmith. “It was under threats that they did their dirty work,” Mr. Maïga said.
The population of Gao largely ignored the grim spectacle on Monday, Mr. Maïga said. “Our young patriots are on the alert,” he said. “They are refusing to obey the injunctions” of the Mujao.
The four young men, from the village of Fafa, had been accused of holdups of passengers on buses on the Niamey-Gao route in July, said Mr. Maïga and a parliamentary deputy from the region, Abdou Sidibé.
“Truly barbaric; not worthy of our civilization,” Mr. Sidibé, speaking from Bamako, said of the amputations. Both he and Mr. Maïga called for outside intervention to liberate the north. “We cannot understand that these things happen, and the world watches and does nothing,” Mr. Sidibé said.