Russian mercenaries in Mali

The French army says this undated photo shows Russian mercenaries in northern Mali.

(Photo: French Army)

Malians Describe Atrocities Committed by US-Backed Army Troops, Wagner Mercenaries

"Here we have the AFRICOM/Wagner overlap," said journalist Nick Turse, referring to U.S. troops and Russian hired guns in the African nation.

Mali's U.S.-backed army and foreign fighters apparently from the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group have forcibly disappeared and murdered dozens of civilians in the African nation's central region since last December, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

HRW interviewed 40 people including 20 eyewitnesses to atrocities perpetrated by Malian forces in the villages of Ouenkoro, Séguéla, Sossobé, and Thioffol, as well as numerous victims' relatives, community leaders, activists, and representatives of international organizations.

A 45-year-old mother of seven from Thioffol who was shot in the foot described a December 18, 2022 raid by Malian troops.

"One [soldier] asked us: 'Where are the men?' We said they were out grazing animals," she told HRW. "He replied: 'If we found your men, we would have massacred them.' He ordered us out, while other soldiers stole our silver bracelets, kitchen utensils, and water cans... As soldiers started leaving, one turned back, stood on the doorstep, and opened fire. Four of us died on the spot, including a girl."

Mali's army and mercenaries have been waging a U.S.-backed war against al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaa Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and rival Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in the Mopti and Ségou regions. The Pentagon's U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is present and conducts operations in Mali.

As Nick Turse noted at The Intercept on Monday:

The U.S. has poured billions of dollars in military assistance into Mali and its neighbors over roughly two decades—enabling human rights abuses by providing weapons and training to militaries that have terrorized civilians, according to the United Nations, human rights advocacy groups, and the U.S. State Department. U.S.-trained military officers have also repeatedly conducted coups, including the putsch leader who toppled Mali's governments in 2020 and 2021. While the coups triggered restrictions on U.S. aid, Pentagon officials have pointed to Wagner's growing influence across Africa as a reason to keep the money flowing.

While Mali's military government, led by Interim President Col. Assimi Goïta since May 2021, has said that Russian military trainers are in the country as part of a bilateral agreement, it denies the presence of Wagner mercenaries.

"However," says HRW, "there is growing evidence of activities and abuses in Mali by [the] private military security company run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin until tensions between the Russian defense ministry and Wagner Group escalated in Russia on June 24."

Survivors and witnesses in Ouenkoro, Séguéla, and Sossobé reported the participation of foreign, non-French-speaking fighters in the raids. These men were described as "white," "Russian," and "Wagner" and, according to HRW, committed just a fraction of the reported abuses.

Residents of Séguéla described how foreign fighters in three helicopters attacked the village on February 3, going door-to-door and rounding up men.

"There were almost only white Wagner soldiers, they led the whole operation," one man said. "They were heavily armed, masked, and wore camouflage uniforms and spoke a language we did not understand, but which was not French."

"They took random people, including very old men."

Another man claimed that "two white soldiers broke into my house, searched it, and took away all my wife's jewelry."

The invaders arrested 17 men between the age of 27 and 82, almost all of them members of the Fulani ethnic group.

"They selected 17 men whom they suspected were jihadists or their accomplices," one eyewitness said. "They took random people, including very old men."

More than three weeks later, a group of Séguéla villagers found the bodies of 13 men—including eight of those arrested on February 3—in a deserted area outside a nearby village. All of the victims were bound and appeared to have been shot; four also had their throats slit "to the point where the heads were almost completely cut off," according to one witness.

People interviewed by HRW also said that Malian and foreign forces tortured detainees to force confessions regarding their membership in Islamist groups. HRW has previously documented alleged summary executions, enforced disappearances, and incommunicado detentions by Malian forces in the region.

The apparent presence of Wagner mercenaries in Mali comes as the country's military government has expelled both the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the thousands of French troops who had occupied parts of the country for nearly a decade, sometimes harming civilians, like in the January 2021 airstrike on a wedding party that killed 19 people.

The U.N. says 187 peacekeepers died during the 10-year Mali operation, which is set to fully wind down by the end of the year following Mali's request to leave.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project, at least 5,750 people have been killed in over 1,740 incidents across Mali between January 2022 and March 2023. The conflict has spilled over into neighboring Sahel countries including Burkina Faso and has worsened a humanitarian crisis in which hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and nearly 9 million people require humanitarian assistance.

The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union have sanctioned Ivan Maslov, who commands Wagner Group forces in Mali.

HRW, meanwhile, is calling on African transnational organizations to act against human rights violators in Mali.

"The U.N. peacekeepers' impending withdrawal makes it more crucial than ever for the Malian authorities to protect civilians and prevent further abuses during military operations," Carine Kaneza Nantulya, HRW's deputy Africa director, said in a statement Monday.

"The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States should express their concerns about grave abuses by the Malian armed forces and allied apparent Wagner Group fighters," she added, "and increase pressure on the Malian authorities to end these violations and hold those responsible to account."

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