Human Rights Watch has accused the Malian armed forces and “foreign” fighters believed to be from the Russian mercenary Wagner Group of “executing” dozens of civilians during operations.
HRW said on Monday that the abuses had been committed since late 2022 “during military operations in response to the presence of Islamist armed groups” in several towns in central Mali.
The international rights group also denounced cases of the torture of detainees and the destruction and looting of civilian property.
“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,” HRW said.
Ilaaria Allegrozzi, a senior researcher at HRW, told Al Jazeera many Malians have become victims caught up in the government’s fight against armed groups.
“We documented abuses by both the Malian army and foreign fighters. These foreign fighters, we believe they belong to the Russia-linked paramilitary group Wagner [which] has a gruesome reputation not only in Mali, but in other African countries including Central African Republic and Libya,” Allegrozzi said.
“According to human rights records, the group has been accused of war crimes and robbing the African continent of its mineral wealth.
“The fact that they are involved with the Malian army in abusive counterinsurgency operations should raise questions and should push the Malian government to address the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable.”
‘Widespread killing, rape and looting’
With the decade-old United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) due to leave the landlocked West African country by the end of the year, the human rights NGO urged the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to press for an end to abuses and hold the Malian authorities to account.
Mali, under military rule since 2012, has been battling an armed rebellion that has spread to Burkina Faso and Niger, killing and displacing thousands of people.
The damning HRW report follows one it published earlier this month that denounced widespread killing, rape and looting in northeast Mali this year.
For the new report, HRW said it had interviewed 40 people by telephone including 20 “witnesses of abuses, three family members of victims, two community leaders, [and] five Malian civil society activists”.
They reported the involvement of armed, non-French-speaking foreigners, describing them as “white”, “Russian” or “belonging to Wagner”.
One was recorded saying that a large number of “white” foreign fighters in uniform carried out a February 3 assault on the village of Seguela, which resulted in beatings, looting, and the arrest of 17 men with eight bodies later found at the scene.
In another attack, a 28-year-old witness said low-flying military helicopters had opened fire on the village of Ouenkoro in March.
“People fled in all directions … I took my motorbike and rode as fast as I could,” he said.
Responding to the HRW report, the Malian government said it was not aware of any human rights violations, but that the public prosecutor “has opened a judicial investigation for war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
US sanctions Mali officials
On Monday, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country is “imposing sanctions on three Malian officials who have coordinated with the Wagner Group to facilitate and expand Wagner’s presence in Mali.
“Civilian fatalities have surged more than threefold since Wagner forces deployed to Mali in December 2021,” he wrote on Twitter.
We’re imposing sanctions on three Malian officials who have coordinated with the Wagner Group to facilitate and expand Wagner’s presence in Mali. Civilian fatalities have surged more than threefold since Wagner forces deployed to Mali in December 2021.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) July 24, 2023
Since taking power in 2020, the military government in Bamako has aligned politically and militarily with Russia and broken ties with traditional ally France.
The UN accused the Malian army and foreign fighters in May of murdering 500 people during an operation, which the military rulers denied.