BAMAKO, Mali––As accusation continues to toss back and forth regarding the murder of a young Arab and the killing of a black soldier, the northern Malian city of Gao was in total shutdown on Thursday, with both communities blaming the other for the deaths.
The country is Mali is intensely divided between the paler-skinned minority Tuareg and Arab populations, who live principally in the north, and black ethnic groups, who live in the more prosperous south of the country.
The ancient Gao is a generally mixed city where the Arab ethnic minority is especially known for trading and retail, but are frequently and prejudicially perceived and sometimes accused of links with jihadists.
A source informed Globe Afrique that young men armed with clubs attempted to “avenge the death of the national guard soldier killed on Wednesday night,” adding they “blamed an Arab for the killing”.
“All the shops are closed. Armed Arabs have taken up position,” a town resident said.
“They are firing shots in the air so that the crowd doesn’t descend on them,” the resident added.
On Monday, the police said they had recovered the body of a young Arab shopkeeper while another remained missing. The incidence has ignited serious tensions between already divided communities in the conflict-riven region of the country.
Local government officials say Arab shopkeepers had kept their stores shuttered in protest of the murder of the Arab man.
Sometime in March 2015, two teenagers were lynched and their bodies burned in the city of Gao by an angry mob that believed the teens had planted bombs in the area.
In 2012, Mali was shaken by a coup which cleared the way for Tuareg separatists to seize the towns and cities of the vast northern desert.
Since then militants linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIS overpowered the Tuareg to take control of northern Mali for nearly 10 months and imposing a brutal interpretation of Islamic law with punitive executions and amputations.
The French intervene in 2013 to calm tension and beat back the terrorists, but despite the French-led intervention, jihadist groups continue to roam the north, flourishing in the center of the country that has no functioning state institutions.
In another development, a group of families on Wednesday accused Mali’s military of killing seven civilians during an operation in the center of the country a week earlier. The government said it has opened an inquiry into the deaths.
A UN report published this month found that “at least 20 percent” of recorded incidents in 2016 and in the first of half of 2017 that endangered civilian lives involved the Malian authorities — essentially the security forces.
“According to our information, the seven civilians arrested on February 21 by the Malian army in Sokolo were killed by soldiers,” said Yehia Ag Mohamed Ali, a former minister and member of the opposition Sadi party.
In a separate incident on Tuesday in the same region, six Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle struck a mine, the army said on Wednesday.
Malian soldiers and international forces are battling jihadists and criminal gangs in the north and center, where an Islamist insurgency has taken root and the state is largely absent.