Jihadists block schooling for thousands of Malian children

Children in Mali stop going to school after threats from jihadists who say they will only allow religious education.

BAMAKO - Nearly 2,000 children in Mali have stopped going to school after suspected Islamists warned they would only allow religious education, teachers and local officials said Tuesday.

"Armed jihadists arrived in our village last week by motorcycle," said a teacher in the village of Toubakoro, about 140 kilometres (85 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.

"They told everyone to gather in a mosque. They told us to close all schools where French is taught, and to teach only the Koran instead," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"They threatened to punish anyone who broke the new rule."

Mali is struggling with a jihadist insurgency that began with an uprising by Tuareg separatists in the north of the country in 2012.

The extremists were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.

But large stretches of Mali remain out of the control of Malian, French and UN forces, which are frequent targets of attacks.

Violence began to spread out of the north three years ago, reviving tensions among ethnic groups in the centre of the country.

Concurring sources said the group behind the threats at Toubakaro claims affiliation to a radical preacher from the Fulani ethnic group named Amadou Koufa.

The men made similar threats last week in the nearby villages of Dandougou, Balala and Ngounado, they said.

"More than 20 schools have been closed in five locations -- almost 2,000 children are not going to school at the moment," said local official Aboubacar Ndiaye, who said he had fled to Bamako "as a precaution".

In his latest quarterly report on Mali, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that 1,108 schools had had to close "at least once" -- defined as a closure of at least 20 days in one stretch -- during the 2017-18 school year. Closures affected a total of 332,400 children.

Security Minister Salif Traore said on Tuesday that a "wide-scale" military operation to tackle threats against schools had begun on Saturday, and "suspects" had been arrested.