BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The head of an ethnic Dogon militia blamed for a massacre in central Mali denied Monday that his fighters had been involved in the gruesome attack that left 154 dead in an ethnic Peuhl village.
Youssouf Toloba also dismissed the Malian president's vow to eliminate the group, saying "he isn't the one who created it."
Human Rights Watch has said that Toloba's ethnic militia known as Dan Na Ambassagou has been implicated in scores of deadly attacks over the past year. The militia has accused ethnic Peuhl of collaborating with Islamic extremists increasingly operating in central Mali.
Suspicion immediately fell on the group after Saturday's massacre in Ogossagou, an ethnic Peuhl village in central Mali. Graphic video after the attack showed bodies burned inside homes with some wreckage still on fire. At one point the body of a young boy in a football jersey can be seen.
Toloba maintained in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday that his fighters were not responsible. He defended his militia, saying it was necessary because the Malian military was failing to respond to violence in Dogon villages.
"We had signed a cease-fire agreement and the government promised to secure Dogon country but then nothing was done," he said.
"If the government and the international community want this war to stop, I invite them to hold an intercommunal dialogue during which all the armed groups in central Mali can discuss it," he continued. "It's the only way to bring peace back to the region."
While Toloba insists his militia fighters are protecting Dogon villages, they are believed to have access to semi-autonomic weapons, making their attacks on Peuhl communities particularly deadly.
The militia leader's comments come a day after Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had a special cabinet meeting to address the weekend bloodshed and vowed to wipe out Dan Na Ambassagou.
His pledge was met with skepticism given the numerous challenges the government faces.
"Making a decree is one thing but applying it in the context of central Mali is another," said Ibrahim Maiga, a researcher at the Institute of Security Studies. "I doubt that the state has the means to disarm this militia in the center especially since the factors that helped create it are still there."
The Peuhl and Dogon ethnic groups had long co-existed peacefully but that has been unraveled over the last several years. The deadly conflict has been fueled by a proliferation in arms and an Islamic insurgency moving ever further south from its strongholds in Mali's north, said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director of Human Rights Watch.
The Peuhl are accused of working alongside jihadists from the Islamic State of Greater Sahara to attack Dogon villages and prevent them from cultivating their land.
They in turn have alleged that the Dogons are collaborating with the Malian military though there is no conclusive sign of state support.
"All communities have suffered violence from opposing armed groups. The Peuhl have disproportionally suffered because the reprisals by the Dogon and Bambara militias have been exponentially more lethal attacks," Dufka said. "Attacks have not been met with a proper state response both in terms of protection and justice."
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to report.