(Nairobi) – Malian armed forces and associated foreign soldiers allegedly summarily executed an estimated 300 civilian men, some of them suspected Islamist fighters, in the central Malian town of Moura in late March 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. The men were among those detained during a military operation that began on March 27. The incident is the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict.
Human Rights Watch investigations revealed that over the course of several days in late March, Malian army forces and foreign soldiers – identified by several sources as Russians – executed in small groups several hundred people who had been rounded up in Moura. A Malian defense ministry statement on April 1 said that from March 23 to 31, the army had killed 203 “terrorists” and arrested 51 more. The statement said the army had acted on intelligence suggesting that armed Islamists were planning a “meeting with different Katibats [battalions]” in Moura.
“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 spoke with 27 people with knowledge of the killings, including witnesses from the Moura area and traders, community leaders, foreign diplomats, and security analysts. Moura is a town of about 10,000 residents located in the Djenné administrative area of central Mali, which since 2015 has been the epicenter of conflict-related violence, abuses, and displacement.
A resident who witnessed numerous executions before being freed by soldiers on March 31 said: “I lived in terror, each minute, each second thinking it would be my turn to be taken away and executed. Even after being told to go, I feared it was a trap. As I walked away, slowly, I held my hand on my chest, holding my breath, and waiting for a bullet to pass through my body.”
The killings occurred amid a dramatic spike in unlawful killings of civilians and suspects since late 2021 by armed Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and by Malian government security forces. Armed Islamists have also killed scores of security force personnel since the beginning of 2022. Human Rights Watch is separately investigating the alleged killing of several hundred civilians over several weeks in March by alleged ISGS forces in Mali’s Menaka region.
Since January, residents in the area have described to Human Rights Watch the presence of scores of white, non-French-speaking armed men participating in military operations in and around the central Malian towns of Sofara, Ségou, Mopti, Diabaly, and Belidanédji among others. Residents said they believed these soldiers were Russians, in part because Mali’s transition government said in December 2021, that “Russian trainers” were in Mali as part of a bilateral agreement with Russia.
The vast majority of those killed by the Malian military and allied forces were men from the pastoralist Peuhl, or Fulani, ethnic group. The armed Islamist groups have concentrated their recruitment efforts on this group by exploiting their grievances with the government and other ethnic groups. All of the survivors and witnesses said that members of the Malian army and “white soldiers” killed the men.
Villagers said that Moura has been under the quasi-control of Islamist fighters linked to AQIM who regularly imposed taxes (zakat) on villagers, threatened civilians refusing to adhere to their strict behavioral code, and imposed Sharia (Islamic law) in courts that did not adhere to fair trial standards.
All parties to the armed conflict in Mali, including foreign fighters, are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international law. Common Article 3 prohibits abuses against “[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities,” including captured combatants and detained civilians, such as “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” The deliberate killing or other abuse of a person in custody is a war crime. Commanders whose forces commit war crimes that go undeterred or unpunished may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.
“The Malian government should urgently and impartially investigate these mass killings, including the role of foreign soldiers,” Dufka said. “For such investigations to be sufficiently independent and credible, the authorities should seek assistance from the African Union and the United Nations.”
For detailed accounts of the attacks, please see below. The names of those interviewed have been withheld for their protection.
Source: Human Rights Watch