Human Rights Watch and Mali’s National Commission on Human Rights have called for an independent investigation into an alleged massacre of hundreds of civilians by government troops and suspected Russian mercenaries. After reports surfaced of the killings last month in the central village of Moura, Mali’s military government said their forces there had killed 203 “terrorists.” But witness accounts contradict the official version of those killed and offer some of the clearest evidence that Mali’s military is working with Russian mercenaries, despite the military’s denial.
On a rooftop in Bamako Tuesday evening, a group of around 15 men sat together and spoke Fulani in hushed tones.
They arrived that afternoon from the village of Moura in central Mali, where reports of killings by the Malian army and Russian mercenaries have been circulating since last week. They said they are here in Bamako to testify for a human rights organization.
In the sparsely furnished living room in the house below, one man described how the killings began. He said helicopters arrived on the morning of Sunday, March 27, and began shooting indiscriminately.
He said white soldiers who spoke neither French nor English descended from the helicopters on the edge of town with a smaller number of Malian army soldiers, and began sorting men into groups.
For five days, town residents and those who were visiting for market day were seated on the ground, under guard by the Malian and foreign soldiers, while witnesses said summary executions were carried out.
Most residents of Moura and the surrounding villages are ethnic Fulani, a traditionally pastoralist ethnic group spread across West Africa, who have long accused the Malian army of unfairly targeting them during anti-terrorism operations.
He said, “They told us ‘Wuli’ in Bambara. Wuli, we know that means get up. They chose another one, ‘Hey! Wuli! Get up!’ They made maybe 12, 15 people stand up, they made them get in a line; they brought them barely 100 meters away. They made them kneel, they had dug a big ditch, they made them put their hands on their heads, then they killed them in front of everyone. Even in front of our children,” he said.
Many governments have accused Mali’s military government of working with mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company with alleged links to the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Malian government denies the accusations, saying it only works with official “Russian trainers.”
Both the Russian embassy in Bamako and President Putin have denied an official Russian military presence in Mali, although Putin also said during a recent press conference that Mali has the right to work with private Russian military contractors.
Human Rights Watch published a report on the events in Moura on Tuesday, including reports of more than 200 men killed.
From Washington, Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at the organization, said Human Rights Watch spoke with 19 witnesses who were present in Moura during the five-day operation.
“If people are killed in this manner, summarily executed, be they suspects or civilians, it’s against Malian law, international law, and on a practical level it serves to fill the ranks of the violent non-state actors,” said Dufka.
Within Mali, the National Commission on Human Rights, or CNDH, a governmental agency, has also called for an investigation of events in Moura.
Aguibou Bouare, the president of the commission, said it’s important that an independent and credible investigation be conducted, as many times probes into state actions take place without results.
He said that although the CNDH does not yet have “formal proof” of a Wagner presence in Mali, they are opposed to such military collaborations.
Bouare said, “We know that these are organizations that do not respect human rights, This is why we really fear interventions by these types of private military enterprises.”
The Malian army released a statement last week saying it killed “203 terrorists” in an air and land operation in Moura.
Another statement released Tuesday said the army has been the object of “unfounded allegations” of abuses against the civilian population.
A Malian army spokesman reached by phone declined to comment.
Last month, Radio France Internationale and France 24 were taken off the air in Mali after RFI reported on alleged human rights abuses by the army near Diabaly, Mali, also against the Fulani population.