Russian mercenaries and Malian soldiers have been accused of killing hundreds of men in a town in central Mali last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.
Although witnesses said some of the victims in the town of Moura were Islamic jihadists, they suggested most of the deceased were civilians.
Giving testimony, survivors told HRW a helicopter carrying soldiers landed near Moura’s animal market on the morning of 27 March. The troops opened fire on 30 armed jihadists, before reinforcements arrived and blocked off escape routes from the settlement, they added.
These forces are then said to have rounded up hundreds of unarmed men from the market and their homes. The prisoners were taken out of town and were forced to lie in the sun, HRW reported.
Hundreds of the captives were murdered over the next four days, according to survivors, with town elders also corroborating this figure.
On 1 April, Mali’s ministry of defense claimed its soldiers had killed 203 “terrorists” in the last week of March, following a recent increase in jihadist attacks in the country.
Although it is not known why certain captives in Moura were killed and others were spared, some witnesses said members of the Peuhl, or Fulani, ethnic group were targeted. Armed Islamist groups are known to have tried to recruit individuals from this group, exploiting their grievances with the government.
“The soldiers appeared to target the Peuhl and let the others go,” one villager said.
Another man, who was held captive, said he heard nine men being executed on 28 March and a further 13 the following day, while a trader spoke of witnessing two of his brothers being shot.
“They took them several meters away and executed them, point blank. Over the next few days, I saw others – in groups of two or three killed the same way… nineteen in total,” the trader said.
Responding to the alleged massacre, Corinne Dufka, HRW’s Sahel director, said: “Abuses by armed Islamist groups is no justification at all for the military’s deliberate slaughter of people in custody.”
“The Malian government is responsible for this atrocity, the worst in Mali in a decade, whether carried about by Malian forces or associated foreign soldiers,” she added.
Ms Dufka urged the Malian government to investigate the deaths, seeking assistance from the African Union and the United Nations to guarantee impartiality.
Vick Ford, Britain’s minister for Africa, who said she was “horrified” by the reports, echoed the call for an independent investigation.
“The allegations of civilian deaths require an urgent, transparent and impartial investigation, to bring those responsible for any violations and abuses of human rights to justice,” the British minister said.
Last month, the EU suspended the training of Malian troops over concerns about the suspected arrival of mercenaries from Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary outfit, in Mali.
“Clearly, our training mission cannot be implicated, in any way, in activities that could call into question the European Union’s reputation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at the time.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.