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On the last Sunday in March before Ramadan, thousands of merchants and villagers filled the market of Moura, in central Mali, trading cattle in a vast pen and stocking up on spices and vegetables in the town’s sandy alleys.

Suddenly, five low-flying helicopters thrummed overhead, some firing weapons and drawing gunfire in return. Villagers ran for their lives. But there was nowhere to escape: The helicopters were dropping soldiers on the town’s outskirts to block all the exits.

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