Mali: Killings, ‘Disappearances’ in Military Operations


Malian soldiers have allegedly killed at least 34 villagers, forcibly disappeared at least 16 people, and severely mistreated detainees during counterterrorism operations in Mali’s central Mopti region, Human Rights Watch said today.

Mali’s transitional government should conduct credible and impartial investigations into these incidents. All were committed since the transitional government took power in an August 18, 2020 coup.

“Mali’s security forces have shown scant regard for human life during recent counterterrorism operations,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Committing serious abuses in the name of security only fuels recruitment into abusive armed groups and undermines trust by local populations.”   

The government said it had opened investigations into incidents in the towns of Libé and Kobou, but family members of victims told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had not contacted them. Mali’s military prosecutors should independently investigate the allegations and suspend officers implicated in serious abuses. The Defense Ministry should ensure that gendarme military police, mandated to promote discipline and safeguard the rights of detainees, are present in all military operations.

Human Rights Watch interviewed in person and by telephone 43 people with knowledge of seven incidents in which the security forces allegedly committed serious abuses. The interviews, between November 2020 and April 2021, included witnesses, local community leaders, government officials, and foreign diplomats. The incidents took place between October 2020 and March 2021 in and around the towns, villages, or hamlets of Boni, Feto Hore Niwa, Kobou, Libé, Solla, and Sokoura.  

The Malian security forces allegedly committed the abuses during military operations in response to the presence of Islamist armed groups largely linked to Al-Qaeda. The findings build on Human Rights Watch research in central Mali since 2015. Human Rights Watch is also documenting serious abuses by Islamist armed groups and ethnic militias in central Mali during the same period, including the summary executions of civilians and the indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices. These findings will be published in an upcoming report. 

Witnesses described how on March 23 soldiers in Boni detained, blindfolded, and severely beat dozens of bus passengers after finding suspicious material in the baggage compartment. At least 13 of the passengers have been “disappeared.”  

Ten witnesses described an October 22, 2020 army operation in and around Libé village during which the security forces allegedly killed 25 villagers including women, children, and older people, many as they tried to flee.  

One villager described seeing soldiers execute six men they had detained minutes before. “The soldiers marched the men into an abandoned shop,” he said. “One [soldier] who’d taken up position at the door opened fire. They lay there, dying as the floor flooded with blood.”

All parties to Mali’s armed conflict are bound by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other treaty and customary laws of war, which provide for the humane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war, including summary executions and torture, may be prosecuted for war crimes. Mali is a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Mali since 2012.

Human Rights Watch on April 7 sent a letter to the Malian government detailing the alleged abuses in this report. In its April 13 response, the general secretary of the Ministry of Defense and Veterans Affairs said that for all of the incidents cited in the report, “investigations have been opened and are ongoing,” and noted that some members of the army have been questioned. The letter added that investigations into the Libé and Kobou allegations have been hampered by the precarious security situation and the reluctance of some witnesses to provide testimony.

“Promising to investigate abuses is a positive step, but the Malian government has failed to make good on many previous such commitments,” Dufka said. “The Malian authorities should rein in abusive units and do much more to ensure discipline in operations, hold abusers to account, and prevent further atrocities.”

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