(Bamako) – Malian government forces summarily executed at least 13 suspected Islamist supporters and forcibly disappeared five others from the garrison town of Sévaré and in Konna during January 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. Islamist armed groups in Konna executed at least seven Malian soldiers, five of whom were wounded, and used children as soldiers in combat.

Although the Malian forces arrested and executed the men and dumped their bodies in wells in public view in broad daylight, military officials and gendarmes denied knowledge of the killings. Malian authorities should immediately investigate the alleged executions and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.

“Malian authorities have turned a blind eye to these very disturbing crimes,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian government should take immediate steps to investigate these abuses and bring those responsible to justice, irrespective of rank.”

The Malian army abuses occurred during the Islamist rebel offensive against Konna, 65 kilometers north of Sévaré, which began on January 9. Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch seeing soldiers at a bus station in Sévaré confront and then detain bus passengers suspected of association with Islamist rebel groups. Many of the men detained had failed to produce proper identification, which the soldiers interpreted as evidence that the men were not from Mali or the area, and thus were likely supporters of the armed Islamists.

Before the soldiers marched them off, many of the detained men frantically tried to find someone in the crowd at the bus station who could vouch for them and verify their identity, witnesses said. They were driven or marched to a nearby field, where they were shot and their bodies dumped into one of four wells. Human Rights Watch saw clear traces of blood in and around each well; in one well at least three bodies were visible. Many of those executed were members of the Peuhl ethnic group, which the army has associated with the Islamist groups that attacked Konna.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some of the soldiers appeared to be under the influence of alcohol as they apprehended and executed the men. A witness to several killings said:

They put the old man and his son into a car and drove them 100 meters to the well in the empty lot. They fired one bullet at the son…he dropped down. Then they took his body and dumped it in the well. Then they fired several bullets at the father, but he didn’t fall. Seeing this, they took some of his clothes off, shot him again and then also threw him into the well. Then they fired again inside the well. People said the military insisted they were Islamists. But the son tried to explain that his father, who had been acting in a weird way, was crazy.

On the same day, they brought in two other men between 30 and 35 years old. They were blindfolded, and their hands were tied in the back with a rope… Even during the night I heard a lot of gunshots. Maybe every two or three hours.

Another witness said that on January 22, Malian soldiers took a well-known religious leader from the village of Gnimi-Gnama while he was preparing for prayer. Five days later, his bloated body was discovered a kilometer away.

Local residents were uniformly terrified to speak of the killings and other abuses in public for fear of reprisal from the military. Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed a member of the Malian security forces instructing a local resident not to talk about recent abuses.

“Many Malians have suffered egregiously at the hands of Islamist armed groups,” Dufka said. “They should not now have to live in fear of their own army.”

Between January 9 and 18 in Sévaré, Konna, and surrounding villages, Malian soldiers also allegedly forcibly disappeared five men, mostly ethnic Peuhl, their relatives and neighbors told Human Rights Watch. In several cases, family members had unsuccessfully searched for their relatives at the army barracks and gendarmerie. A family member told Human Rights Watch about his “disappeared” 72-year-old relative:

Every day at about 8 a.m. he went for tea at the same time…but this day he didn’t come back. Around 10 a.m. a friend who lives near the military base told us he’d just seen him being beaten inside the camp. We rushed there but by the time we arrived he was gone. They said they knew nothing…. It’s been weeks and he’s yet to come home.

Islamist rebels who attacked and briefly held Konna were implicated in the summary executions of at least seven Malian soldiers, five of whom were wounded, Human Rights Watch said. A civil servant said that from his hiding place, he had witnessed the execution of two Malian soldiers and that he was later among a group of villagers the rebels ordered to bury Malian soldiers killed during the January 9 to 11 battle for the town. He told Human Rights Watch:

From where I was hiding I saw two soldiers who’d become separated from the others. They’d run out of ammo and were hiding when a group of four MUJAO (fighters) caught them….one begged for his life saying, ‘Please, in the name of God.’ but they held him down and slit his throat. Two days later, as we picked up the dead soldiers to bury them, the Islamists saw that five of them were still living. Most were gravely wounded but they were still breathing and should have been given a chance to live. Instead the Islamists killed them – one after the other…They shot some of them through the mouth… saying “Allah ahuakbar” [God is the greatest]. …I couldn’t sleep for days.

Other local residents said that children as young as 11 took part in battle for the Islamist rebels. Witnesses in Konna said at least three children were killed during the fighting. A teacher who saw the dead children told Human Rights Watch, “I cannot forget the bodies of those children – three of them lying here and there. One was only 11…the others not more than 14.” Mali is a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which prohibits armed forces and non-state armed groups from deploying any child under 18 in combat. The recruitment and use of child soldiers is a war crime.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applies to all sides in the armed conflict in Mali. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, and customary laws of war. Common Article 3 and Protocol II specifically prohibit the killing of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Individuals who deliberately commit serious violations of the laws of war may be prosecuted for war crimes.

The Malian authorities should immediately investigate the alleged killings in Sévaré and Konna and ensure that those responsible are held to account, Human Rights Watch said. An investigation should include forensic experts to preserve evidence and identify the victims. Malian authorities should develop procedures, with the assistance of international forces, to ensure that everyone taken into custody during military operations is treated humanely, is promptly brought before a judicial authority to ensure the legality of their detention, and is able to contact their families.

Human Rights Watch urged Mali’s international partners, notably France, the United States, the European Union, and the Economic Community of West African States, to call upon the government to conduct prompt, credible investigations into allegations of killings, enforced disappearances, and other abuses by Malian armed forces. International human rights monitors from the United Nations should be deployed to Mali as quickly as possible.