Sixteen Muslim preachers from a moderate sect were shot dead in central Mali as they traveled by road 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 confused them for the extremists who have taken over the nation's north.

The preachers were heading to the gathering in Bamako when they were executed in Diabaly, 430 kilometers (267 miles) north of the capital. The dead included at least 12 nationals of Mauritania, the Mauritanian government said in a government communique that blames Malian security forces for executing the preachers. A relative of two of the victims and a Mali police official confirmed this version of events.

According to the statement released via Mauritania's official news agency, "A group exercising the activity of preaching, which included 12 Mauritanians, were killed Sunday by Malian security forces. According to an official source, Mauritanian officials are in touch with Malian authorities in order to get more information on the circumstances of this affair and also to repatriate the bodies of the Mauritanians who were killed."

Mali also released a statement late Sunday, confirming that 16 people had been killed, which it identified 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 he had two cousins die 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.

The killings were confirmed by a Malian police official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. He said that the preachers were able to cross into the town at the first checkpoint. That was at around 9 p.m. on Saturday. They were killed around 1 a.m. on Sunday, at the checkpoint leaving Diabaly, en route to Bamako.

He said people who saw the long-bearded preachers called the military to say that "the Salafi had arrived," he said, using a word that describes an ultra-conservative strand of Islam.

Outside the village "soldiers arrested the preachers and then led them into the darkness away from the village before shooting them," the police official said.

An army spokesman would say only that the military is "just checking" on reports of the killings.

The incident is likely to inflame tensions between the Islamists controlling the north, and the government-held south.

Last month, mediators from neighboring Burkina Faso had traveled in a chartered plane to meet with the leaders of the radical Islamist groups that control the three main northern cities in the hopes of finding a solution to the crisis. A spokesman for the Islamists, Oumar Ould Hamaha, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the killing of the 16 preachers is evidence that there is no common ground between the two sides, and that the mediation effort is worthless.

He warned that the Islamists would one day attack the south. "We will plant the black flag of the Islamists at Koulouba," he said, naming the hill on which Mali's presidential palace sits.

"We do not recognize these words of condolences issued by Mali which has killed these innocent people," he said. "These preachers have nothing to do with jihad. They are moderate people, who were constantly preaching to us, to tell us to be more moderate in our actions. And if the Malian government has killed them in this barbaric fashion, we will seek revenge."


Callimachi contributed from Dakar, Senegal. Ahmed Mohamed contributed to this report from Nouakchott, Mauritania.