The group “cross-amputations” occurred in the city of Gao in north-eastern Mali. They were ordered by a judge acting for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in west Africa (MUJWA), which together with several other al-Qaeda-linked groups controls the northern half of Mali. The Islamist alliance seeks to impose sharia law throughout the country, and has previously flogged suspected adulterers, people caught drinking alcohol and petty criminals.
Witnesses said that the five men – three Fulanis, one Tuareg and one Arab – were detained in July for allegedly robbing a bus. After a makeshift court found them guilty on Monday, four of the men were taken to a military camp, where their limbs were severed with a knife. The other amputation occurred in the national independence square. Afterwards, the men were taken to the city’s hospital.
“The feet and hands were put in a bag and delivered to the police station,” said Yusuf Cisse, a resident of Gao, speaking by phone. “It was to show to the people: ‘This is what we have done’.”
Mr Cisse said it was the first time an amputation had been carried out in the city. “For us it’s a terrible thing,” he said. “But what can we do? Nothing.”
A spokesman for MUJWA in Gao confirmed the punishment to Reuters. “According to the sharia, the men had to face double punishment for theft and highway robbery,” Oumar Ould Hamaha told the agency. “The sentence for theft is to cut a hand, and the sentence for highway robbery is cutting the opposite leg,” he said.
Islam is the main religion in Mali, but is traditionally moderate and tolerant. The transitional government in Bamako strongly condemned the amputations. “This horrible act shows why we need assistance from our international partners to re-establish our territorial integrity,” said Hamadoun Toure, special adviser on communication to Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra.
The government was formed following a military coup in the capital in March, an event that allowed advancing rebel forces to take over the entire north. Thinly populated and predominantly desert, the region was already being used as a hide-out by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, as well as traffickers in drugs and humans. The Islamist takeover heightened fears that northern Mali could become a safe haven for terror groups.
Mali’s military, headed by coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, has in theory handed power to civilian authorities. But the junta retains considerable power and has rejected proposals from the government and the group of west African states known as Ecowas to send in a regional force to help retake the north. Instead, Mr Sanogo insists his troops can do the job on their own once new weapons arrive.
The evidence for this appears thin. The army has shown little inclination for a fight, and its organisation and discipline are in question. On Saturday, soldiers at a checkpoint killed 16 Muslim preachers who were travelling from the north to Bamako in the south to attend a conference. Eight of the victims were from Mauritania and the government in Nouakchott accused Mali’s army of a “barbaric massacre”.
In a further sign of the mistrust of the junta in the region, Guinea last week refused to release a shipment of heavy weapons that had arrived at its port, and were destined for landlocked Mali