A community militia killed 32 civilians in an attack on a village in central Mali then returned shortly after Malian soldiers left and killed four more, the head of the West African nation's largest ethnic Fulani association said late Sunday.
Mali's government earlier in the day confirmed the first attack and said 16 people were killed, as the Fulani ethnic group faces growing pressure over accusations of links to al-Qaida extremists.
The death tolls differed because many bodies had been buried by the time Malian soldiers responded, Abdoul Aziz Diallo with the Tabital Pulaku association told The Associated Press.
The original attack occurred Saturday when militia members killed herders outside Koumaga before entering and "starting to fire on the villagers," Diallo said.
As soon as Malian soldiers left the village Sunday afternoon militia members returned, killing a man and his three sons, Diallo said.
Koumaga village has the reputation of being the birthplace of a number of al-Qaida-linked extremists. Such fighters have been attacking security forces and a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali regularly since 2015.
The growing insecurity is a key concern ahead of the July 29 election in which President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is running again.
Concerns have risen over alleged abuses by Malian security forces during counterterror operations in Fulani-majority areas where extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have carried out attacks and recruited locals as fighters.
Last week the United States expressed concern after Mali's government acknowledged allegations by the Fulani association and others that soldiers had entered another village, Nantaka, separated out 25 Fulani men and killed them.
Mali's government also confirmed the existence of three graves discovered by residents outside the village and said it would investigate.
The vast majority of civilians reported killed in counterterror operations have been Fulani, and human rights groups have warned that abuses risk pushing villagers into joining extremist groups.
Mali is part of a five-nation regional force launched a year ago to counter the growing extremist threat in the vast Sahel region. Reversing the worsening security situation "will be frustratingly, unsatisfyingly slow," the U.S. military's special operations commander in Africa, Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, told the AP earlier this year.