Mali: Army, Wagner Group Atrocities Against Civilians

Abdoulaye Diop, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Mali.

Investigations Needed Into Indiscriminate Drone Strikes, Summary Killings

  • Malian armed forces and Wagner Group foreign fighters unlawfully killed and summarily executed several dozen civilians in counterinsurgency operations in Mali's central and northern regions since December.
  • Mali's Russia-backed transitional military government is committing horrific abuses and is leaving the regional group that could provide scrutiny into its human rights situation.
  • The mandate of the United Nations Human Rights Council's independent expert on human rights in Mali, who assists the Malian government to protect human rights, should be renewed and given adequate resources.

(Nairobi) - Malian armed forces and Wagner Group foreign fighters have unlawfully killed and summarily executed several dozen civilians during counterinsurgency operations in Mali's central and northern regions since December 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. Military drone strikes on a wedding celebration on February 16, 2024, and during a burial on February 17, 2024, killed at least 14 civilians, including 4 children.

Mali has long been engaged in an armed conflict with Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The recent abuses have occurred at a time when Mali's relations with the United Nations and neighboring West African governments have sharply deteriorated. In December, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), pulled out of the country at the request of Mali's transitional military authorities, raising concerns about the protection of civilians and the monitoring of abuses. In January, the transitional authorities announced that Mali would leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which would deprive victims of gross human rights violations of the ability to seek justice through the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice.

"Mali's Russia-backed transitional military government is not only committing horrific abuses, but it is working to eliminate scrutiny into its human rights situation," said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Malian authorities should urgently work with independent experts to monitor human rights violations and ensure that those responsible are held to account."

Between January 1 and March 7, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 31 people with knowledge of the incidents in central and northern Mali. These included 20 witnesses to abuses, as well as community leaders, activists, international organization representatives, journalists, and academics. On March 1, Human Rights Watch sent letters to Mali's justice and defense ministers detailing its findings and inquiring about alleged abuses. The Malian authorities did not respond.

Witnesses reported serious abuses by the Malian armed forces and the Wagner Group, the Russia-linked military security contractor, during counterinsurgency operations against Islamist armed groups in the villages of Attara, in Timbuktu region; Dakka Sebbe and Nienanpela in Segou region; Dioura and Gatie Loumo in Mopti region; Ouro Fer, Nara region. They said that in most of the operations, foreign, non-French-speaking armed men described as "white" or "Wagner" took part. In Dakka Sebbe, the operation was carried out almost entirely by Wagner fighters. In Attara, more Wagner fighters were identified than Malian soldiers.

Wagner personnel first deployed to Bamako, Mali's capital, by December 2021 with support from the Russian armed forces. Human Rights Watch has previously documented grave abuses by Malian security forces and allied fighters believed to be from the Wagner Group. In August 2023, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended the work of the panel of experts tracking abuses by armed groups and Malian security forces and Wagner fighters, curbing efforts to bring accountability for conflict-related violations.

On January 26, scores of Malian soldiers searching for Islamist fighters in Ouro Fero village went door-to-door and arrested 25 people, including 4 children. Later that day, villagers found their bodies about four kilometers from Ouro Fero. "We found the bodies on a hill, charred, bound by the hands, and blindfolded," said a 26-year-old villager who helped bury the bodies. "They had all been shot in the head."

On February 16, a Malian drone strike on an outdoor wedding celebration in Konokassi killed at least five men and two boys and wounded three others. The following day, as villagers attempted to bury the bodies, a second drone strike hit a group of people at the Konokassi cemetery, killing five men and two boys and injuring six others. Villagers said that while the Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen, JNIM) controls the areas around Konakassi, none of their fighters were at the wedding.

Islamist armed groups have committed serious abuses in Mali for over a decade. They have summarily executed hundreds of people accused of collaborating with government forces; raped women and girls; planted indiscriminate improvised explosive devices; forced civilians into adhering to their version of Islam; looted and burned property; and denied civilians food and aid during sieges of cities and towns.

"Whatever we choose is bad, wherever we go is to face suffering," said a man from Nienanpela village, where on January 23 Malian soldiers and Wagner fighters executed a 75-year-old man who was unable to flee. "The jihadists are brutal and have imposed their way of Islam on us, but the military and Wagner [fighters] who are supposed to protect us, what they do is only to kill, loot, and burn."

Mamoudou Kassogué, Mali's justice minister, told the UN Human Rights Council on February 28 that his government had "deployed major efforts to investigate allegations of human rights violations," including those "made against security and defense forces." He also promised that the National Directorate for Human Rights, a Justice Ministry body, would begin its work. The directorate was created in April 2023 to develop human rights-related policies and prevent human rights abuses by carrying out recommendations from human rights organizations, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Malian human rights advocates expressed skepticism that the commission could be effective, since its head will report directly to the justice minister. "The NHRC is today the only independent human rights body left in the country, but it faces challenges," said a prominent Malian human rights defender. "When MINUSMA was still around, the NHRC, human rights defenders, as well as victims and witnesses of abuse felt reassured. Now, few dare to speak out."

The mandate of the UN independent expert on human rights in Mali, who assists the Malian government to promote and protect human rights, expires on April 4. The UN Human Rights Council should renew the independent expert's mandate and ensure that their office has the resources it needs, Human Rights Watch said.

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 law. The laws of war prohibit the killing or ill-treatment of people in custody, attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, and the destruction or looting of civilian property, among other violations. Individuals who commit violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, that is deliberately or recklessly, are responsible for war crimes. Commanders who knew or should have known about abuses by their subordinates but did not prevent them or punish those responsible may be liable as a matter of command responsibility.

"The Malian army and Wagner Group fighters have shown deliberate cruelty against Malian civilians that should be investigated as war crimes," Allegrozzi said. "Malian authorities should continue working with the National Human Rights Commission and the UN independent expert to gather evidence of serious abuses, ensure credible and impartial investigations, and bring those responsible to justice."

For witness accounts and other details, please see below. The names of those interviewed have been withheld for their protection.

Malian Military Drone Strike

Konokassi, Segou region, February 16 and 17

On February 16 at about 3 p.m., a Malian drone bombed a wedding celebration in an open-air location in Konokassi, Segou region, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The attack killed at least five men and two boys, and wounded three other men. The following day, as villagers attempted to bury the bodies of those killed during the wedding, a second drone strike hit a group of people at the Konokassi cemetery killing five men and two boys, and injuring six other men.

Mali has acquired Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones since 2022. These remotely piloted aerial combat vehicles can surveil, accurately target, and deliver up to four MAM-L laser-guided bombs.

A 57-year-old man who lost his 20-year-old son during the first strike said that they were sitting in three groups: the youth, friends of the groom, about 30 of them; and the adults, about 20 men and 10 elders. "When we saw the drone coming from the south, we did not bother too much because since November 2023, we are used to seeing this drone, it comes many times and flies over the village," he said. "But this time, we suddenly heard a noise, like a whistle and then the big 'boom!' of the explosion."

The JNIM Islamist armed group operates in the Segou region. However, witnesses said there were no Islamist fighters or any other armed men at the wedding. "There were no jihadists at the wedding," the man said:

They are present in our area, but they do not mix with us, they are in the bush. They would never come to a civilian wedding ... They don't celebrate weddings. They ask the father for a girl's hand. If he accepts, they pay [him] the dowry and it's over; there is no party. If the father refuses, they might take the girl by force.

A 34-year-old man said:

The strike occurred at about 3 p.m. It's because of the jihadists that we now celebrate weddings during the day. They have forbidden us to do it at night, as we used to do ... They also do not want men and women to mix, that's why that day, women were inside the house of the groom, while men and boys were celebrating the wedding outside.

Another 57-year-old man said:

The bomb struck the group of young people ... We all ran away, even the wounded ran. There were three wounded: one with a broken arm; another wounded in the head; another with an injured shoulder. Looking at the wounds, they looked like blade wounds, very deep ... We did not come back to the village until the following day.

Witnesses said that the following day, some villagers went back to Konokassi to bury the bodies of those killed at the wedding but were hit by a second drone strike.

The man who lost his son during the first strike said:

We found seven bodies, three of which were totally torn apart. We first buried the three on the spot, then we wrapped the other four in clothes and took them to the cemetery. We were digging the graves when we saw a drone coming, which looked like the one we saw the day before. It flew over us before dropping a bomb. We were shaken by the explosion. I fell and ran away. I was injured lightly in my back. We fled to the bush and late at night some of us, including myself, went back to the cemetery and counted seven more dead. We buried them in a hurry.

Human Rights Watch reviewed two lists of victims and wounded compiled by survivors and residents, with the names of 14 people killed and 9 injured in the two strikes. There are 10 names on the list of victims of the first strike: the dead included 5 men, ages 18 to 30, a 16-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy, and the three injured were all men, ages 18 to 30. The list for the second strike included 13 names: the 7 fatalities were 5 men, ages 19 to 24, a 17-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy, and the 6 injured were all men, ages 22 to 61.

Radio France Internationale also reported the incident, stating that "a drone hit a wedding in Konokassi, in Mariko district. Six people were killed instantly. The next day, Saturday, the drone struck the same locality again during the burial of the previous day's victims. Six other people were killed. And several others injured."

Abuses by Malian Armed Forces and Wagner Fighters

Ouro Fero (also known as Welingara), Nara Region, January 26

On January 26, scores of Malian soldiers carried out an operation in Ouro Fero village, searching for Islamist fighters, four witnesses said. During the operation, they went door-to-door and arrested 25 people, including 4 children. Later the same day, villagers found the charred bodies of the 25 people who were arrested about four kilometers from Ouro Fero. The JNIM armed group is known to operate in the area.

Witnesses said that the operation was a reprisal following an attack claimed by the JNIM, on the military base in Mourdiah, 18 kilometers from Ouro Fero, on December 25. A 26-year-old man from Ouro Fero said:

Following the attack on the military barracks in Mourdiah, we were expecting a violent response by the army. It's always like this. Every time the jihadists attack the army, reprisals against civilians, especially ethnic Fulani, follow. The military accuses us of being accomplices to the jihadists while we just suffer their domination.

Witnesses said that the soldiers, who were coming from the Mourdiah military base, were armed with Kalashnikov-style assault rifles and wore camouflage uniforms, body armor, and helmets. They said the soldiers arrived from the east side of Ouro Fero at about 6 a.m. and surrounded the village while shooting in the air, which caused people to flee. A 56-year-old herder said:

I was awakened by shooting. I went outside, saw people running, and joined them. Once we arrived at the west side of the village, we realized that we could not continue because the military had surrounded the whole village. So, I returned home and hid on top of a shed, under some straw and grass ... I saw two soldiers break into my home. I could hear them asking my wife: "Where is your husband?" She replied I wasn't around ... Before leaving, one of the two soldiers told my wife that they were conducting the operation to identify suspected Islamist fighters to take them to their camp in Mourdiah to interrogate them.

Witnesses said that at the end of the operation, at about 7 a.m., the soldiers arrested 21 men and 4 boys.

Witnesses said that later the same day, people from a nearby settlement, about four kilometers from Ouro Fero, informed them by telephone that they saw the military stop there with a group of people, then heard gunfire. A group of 12 villagers from Ouro Fero, including two Human Rights Watch interviewed, said they rushed to the site where they found the bodies of those arrested that day. The victims, witnesses said, were bound and blindfolded, and appeared to have been shot before being burned.

A man who found the bodies said:

Before finding the bodies, we found the place where the soldiers had searched the victims' pockets. We found some identity cards and hats. Then, about 200 meters further, we found the bodies of all those arrested in the morning. Their hands were tied, their eyes blindfolded. They were shot, some in the head, before being burned ... We buried them at about 5 p.m. We collected several stones and placed them around the bodies, then we poured sand on them and covered them with tree branches.

Human Rights Watch reviewed two lists compiled by survivors and Ouro Fero's residents with 25 names of victims, including 21 men, ages 21 to 67, and 4 boys, ages 12 to 16.

On January 30, French media Radio France Internationale also reported on the killings in Ouro Fero, also mentioning the presence of Wagner fighters. On February 1, the UN high commissioner for human rights stated that he was "appalled by credible allegations that Malian armed forces accompanied by foreign military personnel summarily executed at least 25 people in the village of Welingara," on January 26, and called for an "impartial investigation" to bring those responsible accountable.

On January 26, the chief of Ouro Fero sent a letter to the Malian defense minister, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, informing him of the army killings in his village and expressing his regret. He said that soldiers killed 25 people, including a man who could not see well and children, and that their bodies were burned.

Attara, Timbuktu Region, January 25

On January 25, the Malian armed forces and Wagner fighters carried out a military operation in Attara, a village on the banks of the Niger River, in an area where the JNIM is known to operate. They threatened villagers with death, summarily killed seven civilian men, and looted property, three witnesses said.

Witnesses said that soldiers and Wagner fighters came from Leré, a city about 65 kilometers from Attara.

A 57-year-old herder said:

Early in the morning, our relatives from Leré called to inform us that a convoy of more than 100 Malian military vehicles with Wagner [fighters] had left Leré and was heading in our direction. Given the abuses committed by Wagner [fighters], their movements are always monitored by villagers ... We also received calls from other relatives as the convoy moved forward, passing through the villages of Dianke and Sambani. Our contacts told us that in Sambani, the convoy split into two groups, one heading toward Attara and the other toward Soumpi.

Soldiers based in Leré participated in "Operation Maliko," which was created by a January 30, 2020 decree signed by then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to "counter terrorist and criminal threats." The operation falls under the direct command of the chief of the general staff of the Malian armed forces and is divided in geographic sectors. Credible sources told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers based in Leré operate under Sector 3, whose commander is Col. Seydou Niangadou.

Witnesses said that one of the convoys of about 50 military vehicles, including armored vehicles and pickup trucks carrying soldiers and Wagner fighters, arrived in Attara at about 10 a.m. Soldiers and Wagner fighters went door to door, pulling men, women, and children out of homes and rounding them up by the Niger river. A 55-year-old man said:

I was at the market when the military and Wagner [fighters] came, ordering everyone to go by the riverside. There were more Wagner [fighters] than Malian soldiers. They rounded up villagers there. They stood in front of us pointing their guns. Then, a Wagner [fighter] took a Quran. He ... started preaching. He spoke a language I did not understand, but it wasn't French. A Malian soldier translated in Bambara [language]. He said: "God authorized us to secure you. The Quran itself says that you must submit to our authority. If you refuse, we will kill you ... Do not let yourselves be led astray by the jihadists who lie to you by saying that we, the soldiers, are kuffar (nonbelievers); we are more legitimate than the jihadists.

Witnesses said that some people attempted to escape during the sermon, and the Malian soldiers and Wagner fighters shot them, killing seven men, four of whom fell into the river. The 57-year-old witness said:

As soon as the Wagner [fighter] threatened the community with death, seven people stood up and ran away. But the soldiers and the Wagner [fighters] immediately opened fire. Three were killed by the side of the river and died instantly. Four more attempted to catch a boat but were hit by gunfire and fell into the river ... When the soldiers left, we recovered their bodies from the water.

Human Rights Watch obtained three lists of victims compiled by survivors and Attara residents, with names of three men ages 27, 28, and 35. Witnesses said that they could not identify the other four people killed because they were not from Attara, but they said they were all civilians and ethnic Tuareg traders.

Witnesses said that soldiers and Wagner fighters also looted all the shops at the Attara market, taking goods and money. "I used to own a large shop in the Attara market, selling fuel," said a 74-year-old trader. "I lost up to 5 million CFA [US$8,200] in barrels of fuel. The military took everything from me and looted almost the entire market."

Dakka Sebbe, Segou Region, January 25

On January 25, scores of Wagner fighters, with at least one Malian soldier, attacked the ethnic-Bozo settlement of Dakka Sebbe, two witnesses said. Dakka Sebbe is in a region where the JNIM regularly carries out attacks. The fighters tortured three ethnic-Fulani herders, men whom they suspected of collaborating with Islamist armed groups.

One of the victims, 35, said:

At 10 a.m., about 100 Wagner [fighters] riding motorbikes stormed the settlement. Because we know that the Wagner [fighters] and the military only go after ethnic-Fulani men, my two friends and I hid in a house. But three Wagner [fighters] broke into the house and pulled us out. They were tall, wore camouflage military uniforms, and carried Kalashnikovs. They were masked. They spoke a language I did not understand.... They started kicking us with their boots ... and the butts of their guns. Then, one of the Wagner [fighters] called someone, probably a Malian soldier, and gave me the phone. The man on the phone asked me in Bambara whether we had been caught with weapons. I said no.... But the two other Wagner [fighters] did not seem to be satisfied with my answer and beat us again. One of the two took a knife from his bag and threatened to slaughter us. But the one with the phone stopped them and convinced them to let us go.

Nienanpela, Segou Region, January 23

On January 23, at about 9 a.m., scores of Malian soldiers in pickup trucks stormed Nienanpela village and executed a 75-year-old man, two witnesses reported.

A 52-year-old man said:

Villagers were informed that soldiers from Dougabougou were heading toward Nienanpela. So, everyone fled fearing the military. I hid in the nearby bush and saw a convoy of 17 pickup trucks with Malian soldiers arrive. They carried Kalashnikovs, wore helmets and body armor. They found no one in the village, but an older man who had gone grazing his animals early in the morning and had returned.... When the soldiers left, I went back to the village with other people. We found his body and buried him.

The 34-year-old son of the victim said:

I did not see how the soldiers killed my father because I hid in the bush when they came. But I heard at least two gunshots from my hiding place.... When I went back to the village, I discovered the body of my father lying on the left side, with a bullet wound in the forehead and another one on his right side. My father was an old man and could not run away. Villagers wrapped up his body in some clothes and buried him in the local cemetery.

Dioura, Mopti Region, January 7

On January 7 at about 8 p.m., two Malian soldiers arrested a 50-year-old ethnic-Fulani man whom they suspected of collaborating with Islamist armed groups in Dioura, his relatives said. Villagers found the body of the man the following day with a bullet wound to the head, about a kilometer from Dioura. The JNIM armed group operates in the area.

The man's mother said:

The soldiers broke into our home and searched it looking for my son. They did not find him. They remained outside. Meanwhile, my son came back from the mosque and was immediately arrested. The soldiers said they would take him to their base, about two kilometers away, for interrogation. I begged them not to. But they said that if I didn't stop talking, they would kill me. Then they drove off with him in a pickup truck. That was the last time I saw my son.

The wife of the man, who was also present at the time of the arrest, said:

When the soldiers left, I went to see a villager who knows the military and asked him if he could go to their base to inquire about my husband.... The next day he went, and the military told him that my husband was doing fine and that they were not yet done with the interrogation. By noon, however, a man came to my house to inform me that the body of my husband had been found under a tree.

Villagers attempted to bury the man's body on January 8, but soldiers prevented them from doing so by shooting in the air. "It was thanks to the intercession of a soldier from Dioura that we could bury the body on January 9," said the victim's wife.

Gatie Loumo, Mopti Region, December 18, 2023

On December 18 at about 9. a.m., Malian soldiers and Wagner fighters searching for Islamist fighters surrounded the village of Gatie Loumo, in the Mopti region where the JNIM operates, three witnesses said. The military arrived in about 30 vehicles, including three armored vehicles, pickup trucks, and motorbikes. They entered the village on foot heading towards the market area where they killed at least 21 men, and looted motorbikes, shops, and money. Witnesses said that the soldiers and the Wagner fighters came from the military base in Leré, about 30 kilometers from Gatie Loumo, and that the attack was a reprisal against the community for allegedly collaborating with Islamist armed groups.

A 35-year-old villager said:

About 10 days before the attack, we received messages on WhatsApp saying that the military and Wagner [fighters] based in Leré were preparing an operation in our area and specifically in Gatie Loumo.... In fact, the day of the attack, the soldiers arrived from and left to that direction.

He said that they also found the body of one of those killed from the village on the road linking Gatie Loumo to Leré.

A 52-year-old trader said:

The Wagner [fighters] were masked or wore sunglasses. The Malians were not masked. Both had the same camouflage uniform and were heavily armed. Once at the market, they began to arrest traders. Wagner [fighters] carried out the arrests. ... Many fled out of fear. ... I saw a Wagner [fighter] shoot a cattle trader from close range at about 20 meters from where I was standing in my shop. The victim fell and the Wagner [fighter] searched his pockets and stole money. Then, that same Wagner [fighter], with another one and a Malian soldier, headed toward my shop. The Malian soldier asked me: "What are you doing here?" I replied that it was my shop. He said that I am selling products to the jihadists. I replied that I only sell biscuits and candies to the kids. So, he said: "Don't sell your stuff to terrorists." And then, they left.

Another 35-year-old man said:

I was at the market with my friend Salla Dambere, a well-known trader. The soldiers and the Wagner [fighters] invaded the market, looting shops and shooting people. They took Salla and beat him before taking him away. I ran to save my life. ... When they [soldiers] were gone, I was informed that Salla's body was found on the road between Gatie Loumo and Leré, where the soldiers came from. I went there with six other men, and I saw the body. I noticed marks of torture; his throat had been slit. He was slaughtered like an animal. We buried the body where we found it. On my way back to the village, I saw the body of another man, an ethnic Tuareg, shot in the head.

The first 35-year-old man said:

When the soldiers left, we identified the bodies of 14 people from Gatie Loumo, and we buried them in four graves. The other seven people killed were not from Gatie Loumo, they came from the nearby village of Kelesegui, so we could not identify them. But the following day, their relatives came to take these bodies. All the people were shot in the head or in the chest.

Human Rights Watch obtained three lists of victims compiled by survivors and Gatie Loumo residents, with the names of 14 people between 20 and 70 years.

Witnesses said soldiers and Wagner fighters looted almost all shops at the market, as well as motorbikes and money.

"The material toll of the attack is heavy," said the 52-year-old trader. "The soldiers and the Wagner [fighters] looted about 20 shops, 60 Sanili motorbikes, and nearly thirty million CFA francs from the traders they killed."

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