What the Malian defence ministry claims was a military operation targeting Islamist insurgents, human rights groups decry as the worst atrocity against civilians in the decade-long conflict in Mali.
Mali’s government stated in a press release on April 1st that it had killed jihadists insurgents in the central Malian town of Moura in late March. But an investigation by Human Rights Watch shows that along with some Islamist fighters, as many 300 unarmed civilians may have been executed by a joint force of Malian soldiers and Russian mercenaries.
Western leaders have denounced the incident and called for an independent investigation.
Mali’s government has been unsuccessfully trying to push back Al Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated insurgents for more than a decade. A French-led international coalition had been supporting the Malian government against the insurgents, but as relations between Mali and Western countries soured last year, France drew down its troops. In late 2021, the capital city of Bamako announced that it was bringing in “Russian trainers” to assist its military. Western officials confirmed that the so-called trainers were the Russian private paramilitary Wagner Group, accused of war crimes in other parts of Africa.
According to eyewitnesses in Moura, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the soldiers who descended on the city in late March were a combination of Malian national troops and “white soldiers” who spoke a foreign language.
Moura and the surrounding area are semi-controlled by Islamist insurgents who impose taxes and Sharia law, threaten those refusing to adhere to their strict behavioral code, and often attempt to recruit fighters from the Peuhl ethnic group in the region by exploiting their grievances against both the Malian government and other ethnic groups, according to Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch also reports that on the morning of Sunday, March 27th, during the weekly market that brings in people from the surrounding villages, soldiers entered the town via helicopter, exchanged fire with jihadists in the market, and closed off the exits of the city. The soldiers arrested hundreds of men—some known jihadists but mostly civilians—and took them to an area east of the town where they were detained in the scorching sun. Over the next four days they continued to search the town and executed as many as 300 of the detainees in small groups. Leaders in the surrounding villages report that many men who went to Moura for the market didn’t return.
“Abuses by armed Islamist groups is no justification at all for the military’s deliberate slaughter of people in custody,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Human Rights Watch said that this atrocity occurred amid increasing violence and killings of civilians in the region.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.