Mali's army together with suspected Russia-linked Wagner group mercenaries have committed summary executions, lootings, forced disappearances and other abuses, said a leading human rights group Monday.
Human Rights Watch said the atrocities happened in Mali’s central region and that several dozen civilians were summarily executed or forcibly disappeared since December 2022. The human rights group interviewed 40 people by phone, including witnesses, and reviewed a video "showing evidence of abuses by Malian soldiers and associated foreign fighters."
Abuses, according to witnesses interviewed by HRW, included the killing of at least 20 civilians, among them a woman and a six-year-old, during an operation in the Mopti region by "scores of Malian and ‘white’ foreign soldiers."
HRW said that much of the abuse took place during military operations in response to the presence of extremist groups in the Mopti and Segou regions and all, except one, involved foreign non-French speaking armed men described as "white", "Russians" or "Wagner", said the report.
Most of the civilians killed, arrested, or forcibly disappeared are from the Fulani ethnic group, which extremists have targeted for recruitment.
Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities the following year, with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies.
The country's military government ousted French forces in 2022 and has welcomed up to 1,000 fighters from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military contractor, which worked alongside Mali’s armed forces and has been accused by rights groups and civilians of committing abuses.
In a response to correspondence by HRW, Mali’s foreign affairs ministry said it was not aware of the abuse and that an investigation would be opened into the allegations.
The report comes weeks after Mali ousted the United Nations peacekeeping mission, which had been operating in the country for a decade and investigated human rights abuses as part of its work.
"(The UN mission) had flaws and weaknesses, but was capable of carrying out some very important activities, including granting a minimum of security to urban centers in central and northern Mali," Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior researcher at HRW, told The Associated Press.
Allegrozzi added that they are "concerned about whether civilians living in the most at-risk areas will have the protection they need," given Wagner forces’ "gruesome reputation and appalling human rights record."
Reports of abuse by Mali’s army and foreign troops suspected to be Russian are not new.
Last year the UN Human Rights Office found that more than 500 people were killed – the majority summarily executed – by Malian troops and foreign military personnel during a military operation in the village of Moura.
Allegrozzi said the government's counter-terrorism strategy is abusive and won't stem the insecurity.
"Killing civilians in the name of security won’t help," she said.