Several dozen civilians have been shot dead by gunmen who raided an area in northeastern Mali near the border with Niger, local officials and a Touareg self-defence group told AFP Thursday.

The attack, which took place early Wednesday, occurred in an area which has been badly hit by jihadist violence that has claimed several hundred lives this year, most of them civilians of Touareg or Peul ethnicity.

“Gunmen riding on motorbikes raided many areas in the southern part of the Menaka region and executed civilians from the (Touareg) Idaksahak community,” said the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), which spoke of 47 people killed.

Local officials, who confirmed the attack, put the number of dead at several dozen but said they couldn’t.

The MSA, part of a Touareg rebellion movement in the north, said the assailants headed for the Niger border after first setting a bushfire.

A Menaka official who wished to remain anonymous said he could not give an exact death toll as “by the time the Malian army arrived, MSA fighters had already buried the bodies”.

Another local official said he had been able to speak with one person hurt in the attack and transferred to Menaka and accused the assailants of “firing on civilians”.

The regional governor’s office was not immediately available for comment on the attack.

MINUSMA, the UN mission to Mali, did not give a figure for casualties but deplored the attack on Twitter, urging the Malian authorities to investigate and bring those responsible to justice.

It also said it was deploying a human rights team to investigate what had happened.

In August, a panel of experts said in a report to the UN Security Council that inter-communal conflicts in the region were exacerbating existing tensions resulting from clashes between jihadists groups and international and Malian forces.

France helped Malian forces stave off a jihadist insurgency that took control of large parts of the troubled north in 2012, but large swathes of the country remain out of the government’s control, despite a 2015 peace accord designed to isolate the Islamists.

Since then, attacks have extended to central and southern regions of Mali and over the borders into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

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