BAMAKO, Mali — Sixteen Muslim preachers from a moderate sect were shot dead in central Mali as they traveled to a religious conference, the Malian and Mauritanian governments said Sunday.
Early reports indicate that the men's long beards aroused the suspicion of Mali's military, which mistook them for extremists who have taken over the nation's north.
The preachers were heading to a gathering in Bamako when they were executed in Diabaly, 267 miles north of the capital. The dead included at least 12 Mauritanian nationals, the Mauritanian government said in a statement that blames Malian security forces for executing the preachers. A relative of two of the victims and a Malian police official confirmed this version of events to the Associated Press.
Mali released a statement late Sunday, confirming that 16 people had been killed. It identified the dead as eight Malian nationals and eight Mauritanians. But Mali did not acknowledge that Malian security forces had carried out the execution.
"In the name of the people of Mali, the government deeply regrets this incident," the statement said. "The government has ordered that an investigation be immediately launched, the results of which will be communicated to the public and the international community."
Mohamed Bashir, who said two of his cousins died in the shooting, said the 16 ministers came from the peaceful Dawa sect. He said he received a phone call from a customs officer near Diabaly who told him that the group had aroused the suspicion of the Malian military, which has been on edge ever since a March 21 coup in the capital and the subsequent seizure of the north by Muslim extremists, some of whom are allied with al-Qaida.