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Mali: New Atrocities by Malian Army, Apparent Wagner Fighters

AU, ECOWAS Should Press for End to Violations, Urge Accountability

Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, right, welcomes Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Bamako, Mali, February 7, 2023. © 2023 Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP

(Nairobi) – Malian armed forces and foreign fighters apparently from the Russia-linked Wagner Group have summarily executed and forcibly disappeared several dozen civilians in Mali’s central region since December 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. They also destroyed and looted civilian property and allegedly tortured detainees in an army camp.

On June 16, 2023, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the United Nations Security Council to withdraw the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) “without delay,” citing a “crisis of confidence” between the Malian authorities and the 15,000 member UN peacekeeping force. On June 28, the UN Security Council decided to “terminate MINUSMA’s mandate,” but maintain its personnel until December 31 to plan and execute the cessation of operations and transfer of tasks.

“The UN peacekeepers’ impending withdrawal makes it more crucial than ever for the Malian authorities to protect civilians and prevent further abuses during military operations,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should express their concerns about grave abuses by the Malian armed forces and allied apparent Wagner Group fighters and increase pressure on the Malian authorities to end these violations and hold those responsible to account.”

Between March 1 and May 30, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 40 people with knowledge of the incidents in central Mali. Interviewees included 20 witnesses of abuses, three family members of victims, two community leaders, five Malian civil society activists, eight representatives of international organizations, and two Sahel political analysts. Human Rights Watch also reviewed a video showing evidence of abuses by Malian soldiers and associated foreign forces but was not able to independently determine the date and location of the capture.

Human Rights Watch on June 26 sent two letters to Mali’s justice and defense ministers detailing its findings about alleged abuses and related questions. In its response, dated July 20, through the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the government said it was not aware of any human rights violations, but that “the public prosecutor in charge of the Specialized Judicial Unit, on the instructions of the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, opened a judicial investigation for war crimes and crimes against humanity against X” and that “the findings of various investigations will be brought to the attention of national and international opinion in due course.”

People interviewed said that the Malian armed forces committed the abuses during military operations in response to the presence of Islamist armed groups in Ouenkoro, Séguéla, Sossobé, and Thioffol villages, in Mopti and Ségou regions. During all the operations, except the one in Thioffol, witnesses reported the involvement of foreign, non-French speaking armed men who they described as “white,” or “Russians,” or “Wagner." These cases are a fraction of the abuses committed by the Malian armed forces and affiliated foreign fighters in Mali in the past year.

“I was at the market when the shooting started [and] I saw three military helicopters flying low, one of them firing,” said a 28-year-old man who was in Ouenkoro village on March 23. “People fled in all directions . … I took my motorbike and rode as fast as I could. I saw two people falling on the ground behind me, shot from the helicopters.”

A large number of “white” foreign fighters in uniform carried out a February 3 assault on the village of Séguéla, which resulted in beatings, looting, and the arrest of 17 men, of whom the bodies of eight were later found.

In December 2021, Mali’s military government said that Russian military instructors were in Mali as part of a bilateral agreement with Russia, but denied the presence of Wagner fighters. However, there is growing evidence of activities and abuses in Mali by the Russia-linked Wagner Group, a 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.

On May 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged in an interview with an Italian news channel that the Wagner Group “provides security services” to the Malian government. In a June 26 interview with the Russian media outlet RT, Lavrov said that Wagner Group members were in Mali, “working there as instructors. This work, of course, will continue.”

On June 27, Prigozhin said in a press statement, “Wagner forces in African and Arabic countries have been working exclusively in the interests of the Russian Federation.”

In its July 20 response to Human Rights Watch, the Malian Foreign Minister said that the Malian armed forces “conduct military operations completely autonomously,” and that no other foreign force or pro-government militia “is involved in field operations.”

Yvan Guichaoua, a leading political analysist on the Sahel, told Human Rights Watch, “By demanding MINUSMA's withdrawal, the Malian authorities place themselves in an exclusive security relationship with Wagner, whose way of conducting warfare threatens civilians and whose reliability is questionable as demonstrated by the recent events in Russia.”

On February 25, the Council of the European Union imposed “additional restrictive measures” against the head of the Wagner Group in Mali, saying that “Wagner mercenaries have been involved in acts of violence and multiple human rights abuses.” These restrictive measures, including asset freezes and travel bans, add to the measures that the EU Council adopted in December 2021 against individuals and entities linked to the Wagner Group, including the Wagner Group itself.

On May 25, the United States Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Ivan Maslov, the Wagner Group’s leader in Mali, “for his involvement in the actions of the Wagner Group in Mali.” On the same day, the US State Department imposed visa restrictions on two Malian military commanders, Col. Moustaph Sangare and Maj. Lassine Togola, “for their involvement in gross violations of human rights.” On June 27, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Andrey Nikolayevich Ivanov, an executive in the Wagner Group who “worked closely with Prigozhin’s entity Africa Politology and senior Malian government officials on weapons deals, mining concerns, and other Wagner Group activities in Mali,” for “having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Prigozhin.”

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuses during counterinsurgency operations by the Malian security forces and allied fighters believed to be from the Wagner Group since 2022.

Islamist armed groups have also committed numerous serious abuses, including unlawful killings, looting, and destruction of civilian property.

“Soldiers consider us as jihadists [Islamic fighters], but jihadists threatened to impose an embargo on our village if we didn’t comply with their laws,” said an Ouenkoro resident. “State authorities are not here to protect us. We had no other choice but to accept their orders. And now, soldiers treat us as terrorists. We are between a rock and a hard place.”

Most of the men Human Rights Watch documented who were killed, arrested, or forcibly disappeared were from the pastoralist Peuhl, or Fulani, ethnic groups. Islamist armed groups have concentrated their recruitment efforts on Fulani communities by exploiting grievances with the government and other ethnic groups.

All parties to the armed conflict in Mali, including members of foreign armed groups, are bound by international humanitarian law. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international law. Common Article 3 prohibits murder, torture, and ill-treatment of people in custody. Those who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes.

“Malian authorities will come to realize that the peacekeepers’ departure will severely affect civilian protection and the monitoring of abuses by all sides,” Kaneza Nantulya said. “The Malian government should allow independent experts from the African Union, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and ECOWAS to report on human rights developments in collaboration with the National Human Rights Commission.”

For detailed accounts of the abuses and other details, please see below. The names of those interviewed have been withheld for their protection.

Armed Conflict in Mali

Hostilities have intensified across Mali since 2022 as the Malian armed forces have conducted large-scale counterinsurgency operations against the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaa Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the rival Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Both JNIM and ISGS have frequently attacked civilians. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project, reported that at least 5,750 people have been killed in over 1,740 incidents in all ten regions of the country between January 2022 and March 2023. The violence, which spilled over to other Sahel countries including Burkina Faso, has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis, with 8.8 million people requiring assistance and 412,000 people forced from their homes.

In August 2022, France withdrew the last of its 2,400 troops from Mali, ending a nine-year counterinsurgency operation. Relations between the two countries frayed following two military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021. Following the 2021 coup, both the African Union and ECOWAS suspended Mali’s membership.

In February, the Malian authorities ordered MINUSMA’s human rights chief, Guillaume Ngefa-Atondoko Andali, to leave the country, accusing him of “destabilizing and subversive actions.”

On June 16, the foreign minister, Diop, told the UN Security Council to withdraw UN peacekeeping forces, “without delay,” and rejected a May 12 UN report accusing Malian troops and Wagner Group fighters of killing over 500 people, of whom most were summarily executed  during a military operation in Moura, in central Mali in March 2022. The government denounced what it considered the “instrumentalization and politicization of the human rights issue.”

On June 19, Malian authorities announced they would open an espionage prosecution against those responsible for the UN’s Moura massacre report. The public prosecutor, Ladji Sara, said in a statement that those behind the report are “all co-perpetrators or accomplices in the crimes of espionage, undermining the morale of the army or air force.”

In it July 20 response to Human Rights Watch, the Malian Foreign ministry characterized Human Rights Watch’s approach on evidence collection as “biased” and regretted “the lack of thoroughness in cross-checking alleged facts and the imbalance in the conclusions drawn from them.” It noted that the Malian armed forces are “professional,” and trained in human rights and international humanitarian law and “act in strict compliance with human rights and international humanitarian law.” The ministry concluded by stating that the government of Mali “remains open to continuing dialogue will all partners who genuinely work for the defense and promotion of human rights.”

Thioffol, Mopti region, December 18

On December 18, Malian soldiers unlawfully killed four civilians, including three women and one girl, and injured two other women in and around Thioffol, a small ethnic Fulani settlement within the village of Boulikessi. One Islamist fighter and three nearby civilians, including an older man, were also killed in a firefight with Malian soldiers.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three witnesses to the attack and a relative of three who were killed.

One witness said around 10 a.m., a Malian military vehicle with at least six Malian soldiers, who were part of a large convoy, came across a group of five men, one of whom was an Islamist fighter sitting under a tree on the outskirts of Thioffol. The Islamist fighter shot at the military vehicle and the soldiers responded by opening fire and killing the fighter and three of the civilians. One witness, a herder from Thioffol, said:

“I was with three friends under a tree not far from the village when a man arrived on a motorbike. I noticed his motorbike was full of merchandise and arms. He himself was armed. We sat down together and found out he was a jihadist from Burkina Faso . … Suddenly, the jihadist … climbed the tree. He told us that the military were coming. I saw a military vehicle in front of us. The jihadist jumped from the tree, grabbed his weapon, and fired at the soldiers, who opened fire in response. They [soldiers] killed the fighter and my three friends. I ran as far as I could and hid.”

The other vehicles in the military convoy – four motorbikes and at least 12 pickup trucks with over 100 soldiers, according to witnesses – then reached Thioffol. Witnesses said soldiers went door to door searching for Islamist fighters and looted homes. One soldier broke into a home and from close range shot the women and girls who were inside, killing three women and a 7-year-old girl, and injuring at least two other women.

A 45-year-old mother of seven who was in the home and was wounded in the foot said that soldiers first threatened and then shot at the women and girls inside:

“One [soldier] asked us: ‘Where are the men?’ We said they were out grazing animals. 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 .… [A]s soldiers started leaving, one turned back, stood on the doorstep, and opened fire. Four of us died on the spot, including a girl. The soldiers fired a first and then a second round of bullets.”

Another woman, 32, who was in the same house and was also wounded, said:

“The soldier was standing in front of the door. He got down on his knees and started shooting. I was injured in my left foot, but four others died. When the soldiers left, we took care of the bodies and prepared them for the burial.”

The three survivors and a relative of three of the victims provided the identities of all eight civilians, ages 7 to 72, who were killed.

Séguéla, Segou Region, February 3

Villagers said that on February 3, scores of “white” fighters in military uniforms with at least one Malian soldier carried out an operation in Séguéla village, searching for Islamist fighters. During the operation, the fighters looted homes and shops, beat people, and arrested 17 men. Later, on February 21 near Doura in the Ségou region about 65 kilometers from Séguéla, villagers found the bodies of eight who were arrested in the February 3 raid. The whereabouts of the remaining nine remain unknown.

Human Rights Watch interviewed five people who witnessed the military operation, including two who found the bodies near Doura and reviewed a video filmed on February 21 showing the bodies found near Doura.

Residents said that JNIM is known to operate in the area around Séguéla, however, witnesses to the military operation said there were no Islamist fighters in Séguéla at the time. “The presence of jihadists is real. … [T]hey want us to veil our women, cut our pants short … but this doesn’t make us jihadists,” said a 50-year-old resident. “Jihadists are armed, we can’t chase them out. But that day there were no jihadists around.”

Villagers said that foreign fighters flew into Séguéla in three helicopters, arriving at about 9 a.m. For over five hours they went door to door, pulling men out of homes and rounding them up in front the village mosque. “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.”

Witnesses said that the uniformed fighters rounded them up and beat them with various objects. “The military grabbed me by the neck and pushed me down,” said one man. “They did the same with other people. They beat us with an iron bar. I was beaten on my back and buttocks.”

Another one said:

“I was hit several times by different [white] soldiers with a rubber stick. The military communicated with us through signs. Some would order us to sit, others to stand, some would indicate ‘move,’ others ‘stay.’ Some of us did not comply with their instructions because we didn’t understand what they wanted, and so the soldiers beat us even harder.”

Witnesses said that the fighters looted homes and shops, taking away money, goods, and valuables. “Two white soldiers broke into my house, searched it, and took away all my wife’s jewellery,” one man said.

A 45-year-old man said:

“I was at the market in a shop when I saw two white soldiers coming. One pointed his gun at us while the other looted the shop. He took everything he could, especially the 2 million CFA [US$3,300] belonging to the shop owner. Three more white soldiers came and started looting other shops frenziedly.”

At the end of the operation, the fighters arrested 17 men between ages 27 and 82. Villagers gave identifying details of those detained and specified that they were all ethnic Fulani, except one who was an ethnic Bambara. They said the fighters did not explain the reasons for the arrests, beyond what they assumed were vague accusations that the men were members of Islamist armed groups or had collaborated with them. “They selected 17 men whom they suspected were jihadists or their accomplices,” a witness said. “They took random people, including very old men.”

On February 21, a group of Séguéla villagers found in a deserted area near Doura the bodies of 13 men, including eight of those arrested on February 3 in Ségué a deserted area near Doura. Two who visited the site said that all of the victims were bound and appeared to have been shot, including four whose throats were slit.

One of the villagers said:

“Four bodies had their throats slit to the point where the heads were almost completely cut off. Their feet were bound. It was hard to look and the smell that emanated from the bodies was pungent, obviously the animals had already begun to gnaw on the bodies. We identified eight bodies of our friends and relatives arrested on February 3 in Séguéla. We could not identify the other five bodies because of the advanced state of decomposition, but we suspect they are the other people arrested in our village the same day.”

Both men said they could not carry the bodies with them out of fear of being stopped by the military. The whereabouts of the other men arrested in Séguéla on February 3 remain unknown.

Sossobé, Mopti Region, March 6

Five villagers described an airborne operation by members of the Malian armed forces associated with “white” fighters on March 6 in Sossobé village in which soldiers killed five civilian men and beat villagers, and looted property. Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters are present in and around Sossobé, residents said.

Witnesses said soldiers searched door to door and looted homes. “I was home with my wife and three children when three white soldiers came,” a 50-year-old herder said. “They searched the house and broke our wardrobe with the butt of their guns. They took my wife’s jewellery and 40,000 [West African CFA] francs [about $67].” Said a 45-year-old man, “Soldiers searched us and stole 240,000 francs [$400] from my pocket.”

Witnesses said soldiers rounded up at least 200 men in front of the village mosque and beat at least two who had attempted to flee. “The white soldiers beat two people who were sitting next to me,” a villager said. “They beat them with wooden sticks so hard that the sticks broke.”

Another man said: “The soldiers hit them fiercely several times to the point that I thought the two men had died.” Villagers said that when the soldiers left, they and other Sossobé residents found the remains of five men who they said soldiers killed during the operation. They provided identifying details of the five, four of whom were ethnic Fulani and one an ethnic Bozo. “We found four bodies about 100 meters south of Sossobé, all were face down on the ground, which made us think that they had been killed as they tried to run away,” a man said. “Two had bullet wounds on their heads, the others in the back. We buried them in four graves.”

Another man said:

“There was a young ethnic Bozo man among those who had been rounded up with us at the mosque. He was so scared, he started screaming, ‘I am not a jihadist! I am just a fisherman!’ This irritated the military, who took him toward their helicopters. When the soldiers left, we found his body with several bullet wounds, close to where the helicopters had landed.”

Witnesses said that the soldiers arrested 21 men, all ethnic Fulani, and took them away in helicopters. “At about 2 p.m., soldiers started selecting people,” a 50-year-old man said. “They pointed their fingers at 21 men saying, ‘terrorist.’” Another man said, “Two white soldiers tied their hands with tape, blindfolded them, and took them away.” The whereabouts of those taken remain unknown.

This was not the first time that soldiers have carried out unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests in Sossobé. Three witnesses said that on December 30, 2022, dozens of “white” fighters and Malian soldiers carried out an airborne operation in Sossobé searching for Islamist fighters in which they killed a 46-year-old man and a 55-year-old man with a psychosocial disability (mental health condition) and arrested nine others.

Ouenkoro, Mopti Region, March 23-24

Eight villagers said that on March 23, scores of Malian and “white” foreign soldiers accompanied by pro-government ethnic Bambara or Dozo militiamen carried out an operation in Ouenkoro village in which they killed at least 20 civilians, including a woman and a 6-year-old child The villager said they also arrested 12 men, beat people, and looted property. Ouenkoro is in an area where JNIM is known to operate and carry out attacks.

Witnesses said that at about 10 a.m., at least two military helicopters opened fire on the Ouenkoro market, which was filled with hundreds of merchants and villagers, followed by the arrival of soldiers. “I was at the market when I saw military helicopters shooting at us,” said a 55-year-old man. “People ran away. I hid behind a house and saw white soldiers invading the market, shooting, breaking into homes, and arresting people.”

Witnesses said the helicopters were sand camouflage, which the Malian military uses.

Human Rights Watch obtained two lists of victims compiled by survivors and Ouenkoro residents, one with 20 names and the other with 22, but was unable to confirm the exact number of deaths.

Witnesses said that while Islamist fighters are known to pass by Ouenkoro and shop at the market, the day of the military operation there was no exchange of gunfire between the soldiers and Islamist fighters. They said soldiers shot from both the helicopters and from ground level at people who were running for cover. Witnesses and people who participated in the burials said that they found the bodies of those killed scattered in various places, including at the market and the village entrances.

A 39-year-old man who helped bury the bodies at the village cemetery on March 24 and March 25 said he found “four bodies at the market and others around the village,” with various types of wounds. “[T]hose [at the market] were clearly torn apart and shattered,” while the “others had bullet wounds in the back or in the head.”

“I counted at least 20 bodies,” another man said. “We buried them individually, each in one grave.”

At least one body was found charred. “I saw the bodies of three people, including of my 84-year-old uncle, who was completely burned near his barn and granaries,” said a 34-year-old herder. “The other two bodies were a 57-year-old trader and a man from Douren village. They were both shot.”

Witnesses said soldiers went door to door, pulled men out, and then rounded them up in front of the village mosque where they beat them with various objects and accused them of collaborating with Islamist fighters. “Two white soldiers broke into my place, pointed their guns at me, and took me toward the mosque,” a man said. “On the way, they stopped and beat all men who attempted to flee.”

Another man said:

“White soldiers didn’t beat me because of my old age. But they beat almost all the others. They punched them, kicked them with their boots, hit them with sticks. They also questioned people about the presence of jihadists. And when people replied they didn’t know, soldiers hit them harder.”

Soldiers who participated in the operation also destroyed and looted civilian property. A man who fled Ouenkoro during the attack and returned there on March 28 said:

“At the market, at least three shops had been vandalized and looted. In one shop, soldiers had looted all the towels and a solar panel. In two others, they had taken away all products, including rice, sugar, and drinks. I also saw a barn and a granary completely burned.”

Villagers said that on March 23, soldiers arrested at least 12 men in Ouenkoro between age 45 and 82, of whom most were ethnic Fulani. They took them to an unknown destination the following day. Human Rights Watch reviewed a list of names of those arrested compiled by relatives and other Ouenkoro residents.

Human Rights Watch learned that “white” fighters and Malian soldiers took those arrested to an army camp in the town of Sofara in Mopti region and used torture or other ill-treatment to force confessions from the detainees regarding their affiliation or complicity with Islamist armed groups. Human Rights Watch has previously documented alleged summary executions, enforced disappearances, and incommunicado detentions by government security forces in and near the Malian army camp in Sofara.

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