Shortly after rolling into the central Malian town Koro to detain a leader of an ethnic militia suspected of massacring about 160 villagers, a military pickup truck was swarmed by hostile residents.
Video provided to Reuters by a senior member of the Dan Na Ambassagou militia appears to show troops beating a retreat amid a hail of rocks and angry chants.
The episode last weekend, confirmed by a local mayor, was an embarrassing blow to state authority in central Mali, where Islamist insurgents capitalise on spiralling communal conflicts to recruit new members and extend influence.
Government and army spokespeople did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the Koro incident.
Mali’s prime minister and his entire government resigned on Thursday after legislators discussed a motion of no confidence because of the massacre and a failure to disarm militias or halt militants.
“Government’s failure to rein in militia groups is coming home to roost,” said Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch’s West Africa director. “It’s threatening the authority of the state.”
Western governments, including former colonial power France and the United States, are alarmed by the rise of jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in West Africa’s lawless Sahel region.
They deployed thousands of troops to ensure it does not become a new Islamist haven following losses inflicted on Middle Eastern groups.
Governments across the Sahel have tacitly outsourced part of the fight against jihadists to local self-defence groups, many intent on settling ethnic scores.
The killings of villagers on March 23, Mali’s worst ethnic bloodletting in living memory, show what can go wrong when governments turn a blind eye to vigilante groups to repel jihadists.
Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita ordered the Dan Na Ambassagou — an anti-jihadi, ethnic Dogon group — disbanded after suspected members stormed Ogossagou and Welingara, inhabited mainly by Fulani herders.
Most deaths were in Ogossagou, where gunmen left charred bodies of women and children smouldering in their homes.
The United Nations sent rights experts to investigate the killings. The International Criminal Court said the crimes could fall under its jurisdiction.
Dan Na Ambassagou denies involvement in killing and refuses to lay down weapons it says it needs to defend Dogon farmers against jihadists, whose ranks are largely Fulanis.
“When there are two people in conflict you can’t take the weapon from one and leave the other with his,” a senior militia member, Marcelin Guenguere, told Reuters.
Forcibly disarming Dan Na Ambassagou “could provoke a rebellion that will not be so easily contained”, he said.
Shaky footage provided by Guenguere purports to show dozens of people, some wearing floppy brown caps sported by Dogon hunters, yelling and gesticulating at soldiers as they climb onto the back of the pickup and drive off.
Reuters could not independently authenticate the video.
Moulaye Guindo, mayor of nearby Bankass, confirmed soldiers tried to arrest the militia leader in Koro and withdrew when residents protested.
Government denies it co-operates with any militia.
Security Minister Salife Traore told parliament some groups “thought they needed to fill in for the state”.
Researchers including Human Rights Watch say there is no proof of formal collaboration between Mali’s government and militias but there appear to be understandings allowing fighters to openly man checkpoints and defy bans on motorcycles.
Guenguere told Reuters Dan Na Ambassagou provided guides for army operations and secured polling places during last year’s presidential election at government’s request.
The government denies this.
“We have always collaborated well with the Malian army and authorities,” Guenguere said, “but now we are becoming a little disappointed.”
Jihadi attacks have multiplied in the region, spilling into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger despite deployment of thousands of French soldiers to go after Islamist militants who briefly seized northern Mali in 2012.
Jihadis are adept at exploiting ethnic division, often siding with semi-nomadic Fulani pastoralists in conflicts with more settled farming peoples such as the Dogon over land rights.
The massacre of the Fulani villagers followed a deadly assault by jihadists on an army post that killed at least 23 soldiers, also in central Mali, an attack claimed by an al Qaeda affiliate.
To date authorities have made five arrests. It is unclear whether an attempt to apprehend militia leader Mamadou Guindo at the weekend was related.
“Events playing out in the centre of our country have reached an unacceptable dimension that cries out to us all,” President Keita said, saying new measures to counter militia violence were being implemented.