Antananarivo (AFP) - Clashes between armed bands of cattle rustlers and security forces have left 15 people dead in Madagascar including two paramilitary policemen, officials said Sunday.
The village tradition of young Malagasy men stealing prized humped zebu cattle to prove their virility and valour took a bloody turn after two separate incidents in the south-east of the island nation.
Known as dahalos, about 80 of these men, armed with hunting rifles, took off with 150 zebu in the village of Tranomaro early Sunday morning, said paramilitary police general Lumene Fidele Rasolofo.
"When the gendarmerie and villagers chased down the dahalos there was a confrontation ... and 13 dahalos were killed," he said.
Then in another village called Mahaly, a second theft of 300 zebu led to a clash between nearly 100 armed men and six paramilitary police officers, two of whom were killed.
A symbol of wealth, zebu are at the heart of local culture in the south of Madagascar, where they are eaten only at weddings or special celebrations, sacrificed for ancestor worship or in burial rituals.
The tradition of stealing them has fuelled inter-communal violence in the country. The army has also been accused of carrying out extra-judicial killings and razing villages that are suspected of sheltering cattle rustlers.