Suspected Russian mercenaries took part in an operation with the Malian army in March in which around 300 civilian men were reportedly executed in five days, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Eyewitnesses and local community leaders said hundreds of men were rounded up and killed in small groups during the March 23 anti-jihadist operation in the central town of Moura. The rural commune of around 10,000 inhabitants is in the Mopti region, a hotspot for jihadist activity which has intensified and spread to neighboring countries in the Sahel region.
Local security sources told HRW that more than 100 Russian-speaking men were believed to have been involved in the operation, which HRW described as the worst reported atrocity in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict. Witnesses spoke of white soldiers speaking in an unknown foreign language which they believed to be Russian.
The Malian military has long been accused of rights abuses during counter-insurgency operations. A Malian military spokesman did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters to comment on the HRW report.
“Abuses by armed Islamist groups do not justify the deliberate killing of people in military custody,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian government is responsible for this atrocity, the worst in Mali for a decade, whether perpetrated by Malian forces or associated foreign soldiers.”
After reports of alleged atrocities in Moura, Mali’s military last week said it killed 203 Islamist militants from March 23-31 and arrested 51 others following intelligence reports of a meeting between rebel groups. He added that he would investigate any allegations of rights violations.
Horrifying tales of alleged abuse by Malian forces and suspected Russian mercenaries have emerged from the city. On March 27, witnesses said Malian soldiers arrived by helicopter near the Moura animal market and exchanged fire with jihadists. Helicopters blocked exits from the area as traders and civilians tried to escape.
Witnesses said soldiers patrolled the town, executing several unarmed men who tried to flee and arresting hundreds more. Witnesses said groups of up to 10 men at a time, most of the pastoralist Fulani (also known as Fulani) ethnicity, were killed.
A trader said he was drinking tea with his two brothers while waiting for the market to open when he heard gunshots. “Seven Russians approached, waving us to our feet. There were no Malian soldiers with them. They searched us and the house and then took us to the east of the village, near the river, where we found 100 other men,” he told HRW. “Another group of Russians pointed at my brothers and another man. I thought they were going to be interrogated. They took them several meters away and executed them at close range.
Mali, a poor country of nearly 21 million people, is ruled by a junta that seized power in a coup in August 2020, promising to restore civilian rule. The country is under sanctions from the West African bloc ECOWAS for ignoring an earlier pledge to hold elections in February this year.
Whole swaths of Mali are beyond government control, due to a violent jihadist conflict that began in 2012 and has spread to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
The German Foreign Ministry has urged Mali to carry out an independent investigation into reports of civilian deaths. “The Mali General Staff did not mention any civilian casualties in their report on the operation,” the German Foreign Ministry said. “This is contradicted by possible witness statements that mention the targeted killing of civilians.”
There has been a sharp increase in killings of civilians and suspected terrorists in Mali since late December, both by jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, and by Malian security forces. HRW said at least 107 civilians were killed and 71 of those deaths could be linked to Malian forces.
Mali’s military leadership has forged closer ties with Russia after its relations soured with the West – particularly with France, its former ally and colonial-era leader, which has pledged to reduce its forces in the Sahel.
The Malian government is fighting the insurgency with the help of private military contractors from Russia’s Wagner Group. Mali and Russia have previously said they were not mercenaries but trainers helping local troops with equipment bought from Russia.
Wagner, established in 2014 to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, is believed to be funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful businessman with close ties to Vladimir Putin who has faced Western sanctions. Prigozhin and Moscow have denied any knowledge of Wagner, and officially private military companies are illegal in Russia. On paper, the business does not exist, with no company registration, tax return, or organizational chart to be found.