NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania – The bodies of nine of the Muslim preachers killed last week in neighboring Mali were repatriated to Mauritania on Wednesday, and the president of Mauritania stood in silence as the coffins were unloaded from the special flight in a somber ceremony marking the tragedy.
He was flanked by members of the Dawa sect, the non-violent school of Islam to which the preachers belonged. The nine were part of a group of 16 preachers who were traveling by truck from Mauritania to Mali for a religious conference of the Dawa sect which was supposed to start Friday. They were stopped at a checkpoint in the central Malian town of Diabaly, where all 16 as well as their driver were gunned down by Malian soldiers.
Early reports indicate that the long-bearded preachers were mistaken for the jihadists who took over Mali's north in April, imposing Shariah law and recently threatening to advance on Bamako, the Malian capital.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz called the killing of the religious men "an odious crime that was committed due to the difficult political and security challenges that our brother nation is facing." He described the dead as, "peaceful preachers known to everyone — whose mission was to preach a moderate and non-violent form of Islam."
The Mauritanian leader repeated calls for an investigation, saying that the Malian government needs to get to the bottom of what happened. Mali has sent a special envoy, who met with the president in order to express Mali's condolences.
In the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, which is controlled by Islamist jihadists linked to al-Qaida, some 200 people marched through the main market to protest the killing of the moderate preachers. The demonstration was led by Ansar Dine, a radical Islamic group which has forced women in Timbuktu to veil themselves and has banned alcohol, music and soccer.
The Islamists say that the preachers had often tried to dissuade them from violence, and had urged them to be more moderate in their actions. They say that the fact that the Malian military killed them is evidence that there is no common ground between the two sides.
"The population of Timbuktu is in mourning today because of the murder of the preachers. The business owners have shut their boutiques and work has been stopped for the next 24 hours," said Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Abou Mohamed. "There is a march right now and people are demanding justice for this massacre ... the army cannot continue to kill the population with impunity."
The exact events that transpired on the night of Sept. 8 to 9 in the town of Diabaly where the 16 were killed remain murky. The Mauritanian government, and the relatives of the preachers, say the 16 were not armed, and that they had taken all the necessary permissions, known as a laissez-passer in order to enter the country.
Sid'Ali Ould Oumar, a relative of one of the dead preachers, said that the car full of bearded men aroused suspicion at a government post several miles before the entrance to Diabaly, and that people in the car overheard the officials at the post making calls to warn that "the Salafi have arrived" — a term referring to an extreme form of Islam.
A police officer based in Diabaly, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal from his superiors, said that the car was stopped at the army checkpoint, at the exit to Diabaly. He says they were told to get down, and were made to walk into a nearby field, where the soldiers opened fire on them.
Baba Ahmed contributed from Bamako, Mali.