The Malian military killed eight peaceful civilians, a relative said Tuesday after the government announced its soldiers had targeted armed gunmen suspected of attacking a bus.
The deaths mark the second time soldiers have been accused of killing unarmed civilians at a time when the international community is looking to Mali's military to lead efforts to retake the country's north from the hands of radical Islamists.
Mali's government released a statement on Monday stating that its troops had killed about 10 men near the town of Diabaly on Oct. 21. It said the soldiers also had recovered two shotguns along with ammunition.
However, in an interview with The Associated Press, relative Mohamed Amzad said the men were animal herders — not criminals. Amzad said he believed the deaths stemmed from a decade-long rivalry between two families in the area.
One of the victims, Mohamed Almoustapha Ould Wilayata, had fallen out with a family close to a soldier in the Malian army," his cousin said.
"It's the same soldier who brought the army here this time to kill them," he said.
The men killed were Tuaregs, an ethnic group from northern Mali that has faced discrimination in the country's south.
In September, rank-and-file soldiers killed 16 unarmed Muslim preachers in the same region, many of whom were coming from Mauritania en route to a religious conference in Mali's capital.
The Malian government statement asked people to notify security forces of suspicious acts to better help them "protect and safeguard the interests of the nation."
Mali descended into political chaos in March when mutinous soldiers overthrew the democratically elected president who was nearing the end of his final term in office.
The junta's leader nominally handed over power to a civilian transitional government, though no timetable has been set for new elections and the junta leader has not completely removed himself from politics.
The mutinous soldiers said they overthrew then-President Amadou Toumani Toure because of the way he had mishandled a Tuareg rebellion in the north. However, the coup provided a power vacuum that has allowed al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants to seize control of an area the size of France where they have carried out public executions, whippings and amputations.
Momentum is mounting for a regional military intervention to retake the north, though analysts question whether Mali's military is capable of leading such an effort.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson contributed to the report from Dakar, Senegal.