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A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies with the majority of its 15.8 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed last March, following a coup in the capital which created the disarray that allowed Islamist extremists to take over the main cities in the distant north.

Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.