Mali: New Atrocities By Malian Army, Apparent Wagner Fighters, Says HRW


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 Monday. 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 evidenceof 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 imposedsanctions 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 lawCommon 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.”

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