Mali army and suspected Russia-linked mercenaries committed ‘new atrocities’, rights group says

DAKAR, Senegal –

Mali’s military, along with suspected Russian-linked Wagner mercenaries, have committed summary executions, looting, enforced disappearances and other abuses, a leading human rights group said on Monday.

Human Rights Watch said the atrocities occurred in Mali’s central region and several dozen civilians have been summarily executed or forcibly disappeared since December 2022. The rights group interviewed 40 people by phone, including witnesses, and reviewed video “showing evidence of abuses by Malian soldiers and associated foreign fighters.”

The abuses, according to witnesses interviewed by HRW, included the killing of at least 20 civilians, including a woman and a six-year-old child, during an operation in the Mopti region by “dozens of Malian and ‘white’ foreign soldiers.”

HRW said much of the abuse took place during military operations in response to the presence of extremist groups in the Mopti and Segou regions and all but one involved non-French-speaking foreign gunmen described as “white”, “Russian” or “Wagner”, the report said.

Most of the civilians killed, arrested or subjected to enforced disappearance belong to the Fulani ethnic group, which the extremists have targeted for recruitment.

Mali has struggled to contain an extremist Islamic insurgency since 2012. The extremist rebels were forced to relinquish power in Mali’s northern cities the following year, with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies.

The country’s military government expelled French forces in 2022 and has taken in as many as 1,000 fighters from the Wagner Group, an obscure Russian military contractor, which worked alongside Mali’s armed forces and has been accused by civil and human rights groups of committing abuses.

In response to correspondence from HRW, Mali’s foreign ministry said it was unaware of the abuse and an investigation would be opened into the allegations.

The report comes weeks after Mali expelled the United Nations peacekeeping mission, which had been operating in the country for a decade and was investigating human rights abuses as part of its work.

“(The UN mission) had flaws and weaknesses, but it was capable of carrying out some very important activities, including ensuring a minimum of security in the urban centers of central and northern Mali,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, a senior researcher at HRW, told The Associated Press.

Allegrozzi added that they are “concerned that civilians living in the highest-risk areas will have the protection they need,” given the “appalling reputation and appalling human rights record” of Wagner’s forces.

Reports of abuses by the Malian army and foreign troops suspected of being Russian are not new.

Last year, the UN Human Rights Office found that more than 500 people were killed, most summarily executed, by Malian troops and foreign military personnel during a military operation in the village of Moura.

Allegrozzi said that the government’s anti-terrorism strategy is abusive and will not stop insecurity.

“Killing civilians in the name of security will not help,” he said.

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