HELPLESS AND HOPELESS This June 7, 2022 file photo shows Malian refugees waiting outside a food distribution center in M’Berra camp for their food allocation in Bassikounou, southeastern Mauritania. The camp, one of the largest of its kind in West Africa, hosts civilians fleeing violence in Mali. AFP PHOTO
HELPLESS AND HOPELESS This June 7, 2022 file photo shows Malian refugees waiting outside a food distribution center in M’Berra camp for their food allocation in Bassikounou, southeastern Mauritania. The camp, one of the largest of its kind in West Africa, hosts civilians fleeing violence in Mali. AFP PHOTO

BAMAKO, Mali: Suspected jihadists massacred more than 130 civilians over the weekend in neighboring towns in central Mali, the latest mass killings in the Sahel region.

Local officials reported scenes of systematic killings by armed men in Diallassagou and two surrounding towns in the Bankass circle, a longtime hotbed of Sahelian violence.

"They have also been burning huts, houses and stealing cattle — it's really a free-for-all," said a local official who, for security reasons, spoke on condition of anonymity.

He and another official, who like him had fled his village, said the death toll was still being counted on Monday.

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Nouhoum Togo, head of a party in Bankass, the main town in the area, said the toll was even higher than the 132 announced by the government, which has blamed al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists for the slaughter.

National authorities broke their silence on Monday afternoon after alarming reports proliferated on social networks over the weekend.

Togo told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that military operations in the area two weeks ago had led to clashes with jihadists. Last Friday, the jihadists returned on several dozen motorbikes to take revenge on the population, he added.

"They arrived and told the people, 'You are not Muslims' in Fulani, then took the men away, and a hundred people went with them," he said. "Some 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away, they systematically shot people."

The bodies continued to be collected in the areas around Diallassagou on Monday, according to Togo.

The government blamed the attack on Fulani religious leader Amadou Koufa's armed group, the Macina Katiba.

Central Mali has been plagued by violence since the al-Qaeda-affiliated organization emerged in 2015.

A large part of the area is beyond state control and is prone to violence by self-defense militias and inter-community reprisals.

Since 2012, Mali has been rocked by an insurgency by groups linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.

Violence that began in the north has since spread to the center and neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Civilians are often subjected to reprisals by jihadists who accuse them of collaborating with the enemy.

Some areas of the country, especially in the center, have fallen under the jihadists' control.

The military ousted the civilian government in 2020 over its inability to halt the violence and has said the restoration of security is its priority.

But civilians still often find themselves caught in the crossfire between armed groups, including those affiliated with al-Qaeda and IS.