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Locking Arms with Russians, Mali Denies Ethnic Massacre

Soldiers of the Malian army during a patrol on a road between Mopti and Djenne, central Mali, Feb. 28, 2020. (AFP)
Soldiers of the Malian army during a patrol on a road between Mopti and Djenne, central Mali, Feb. 28, 2020. (AFP)
Issa Konfourou

Issa Konfourou

Mali’s representative to the United Nations

“The government is very committed to respect and making sure that human rights are respected by the national and international forces.”


During a United Nations meeting on April 7 about the situation in Mali, Issa Konfourou, Mali’s ambassador to the U.N., denied allegations that government forces committed atrocities in the south-central Malian town of Moura.

In late March, Malian troops and Russian mercenaries allegedly executed some 300 civilians during a counter-insurgency campaign against terrorist groups in Moura.

Konfourou said his government would investigate and release the findings. He called on others not to call the incident a massacre or make accusations against the Malian armed forces.

“The government is very committed to respect and making sure that human rights are respected by the national and international forces,” Konfourou said.

That is misleading.

Evidence exposed by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the United Nations’ stabilization mission in Mali (MINUSMA) contradict his statement.

On April 4, Col. Mariam Sagara, spokesman for the Malian armed forces, said the army had killed 200 Islamist militants and arrested 51 more in Moura during a special operation involving land and air forces.

According to the Malian army, over the past several years, extremists have used Moura as a base from which to launch attacks in central and northern Mali.

The Malian army said in a statement that it respects human rights and has conducted awareness-raising and training efforts, as well as launched investigations into all allegations of wrongdoing.

But HRW reported on April 5 that Malian troops and foreign soldiers, who sources identified as Russian mercenaries, summarily executed 300 men during an operation in Moura.

HRW said it interviewed 27 people, including witnesses, traders from the local market in the village, community leaders, foreign diplomats and security analysts.

The majority of those killed were from the pastoralist Peuhl, or Fulani, ethnic group, which jihadist recruiters have targeted to exploit the group’s grievances against the government.

Local residents told HRW they saw “scores of white, non-French-speaking armed men” they believed were Russians because the government previously said it had hired Russian “trainers.”

Witnesses said Russian militia appeared to outnumber Malian soldiers, mainly in the first two days of the operation, when about 100 Russian troops and a number of Malian soldiers were air-dropped in the town. The Russian forces then blocked all exits.

“Over the four days, the soldiers ordered the detained men in groups of 4, 6, or up to 10, to stand up and walk for between several dozen and several hundred meters. There, the Malian and foreign soldiers summarily executed them. The witnesses said some victims were shot in the head, while other groups of men were sprayed by gunfire,” the HRW report stated.

The alleged killings in Moura were not the first such allegations in Mali identifying mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group and members of the Malian army. The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company (PMC) that analysts say has deep ties to the Russia military and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some have likened them to Putin’s “private army.”

During the April 7 U.N. session, El Ghassim Wane, head of the U.N. Mali mission, called on government authorities to allow U.N. teams enter Moura and investigate.

Wane said the mission has opened “17 investigations on allegations of indiscriminate attacks against civilians, extrajudicial arrests, mistreatment, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in central Mali since the beginning of this year.”

Reports by HRW and France’s Le Monde newspaper published in mid-March cited Malians who said government and foreign troops detained and tortured them. They described the foreign troops as “white men speaking a strange language.”

HRW said that the Malian army and terrorist groups have killed at least 107 civilians since December 2021. During this period, about a thousand Russian mercenaries arrived in Mali to support counter-terror operations, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported.

On March 15, the Africa Report, a pan-African weekly magazine, said an unofficial U.N. report suggested the Malian army and Russian mercenaries were involved in the death of 30 people, including children, near the south-central Malian village of Dangere-Wotoro.

Their charred, blindfolded and bound remains were found, and witnesses said they were executed and burned. It is believed that the victims were members of the Fulani ethnic group.

“As for the perpetrators, there are reports that this incident was carried out by elements of the Malian Armed Forces, supported by members of the Russian private military company known as Wagner,” the report from the U.N. Mali mission said.

The mission said that jihadists, armed militias and Mali's armed forces killed nearly 600 civilians in 2021. As of April 2021, more than 1,000 people, including soldiers, militants and at least 450 civilians, had been killed in Africa's Sahel region, which includes Mali, according to Rida Lyammouri of the Middle East Institute.

In a March 2021 report on the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic, a U.N. working group on mercenaries described the Wagner Group as a shadowy network that “does not seem to have a legal existence, while operating in several countries across the globe.”

“This web of enterprises shares, to different degrees, management and ownership structures, as well as personnel, and identifiers such as phone numbers, addresses and emails,” the U.N. report stated.

Malian authorities have repeatedly denied the presence of mercenaries in Mali, contending only that Russian trainers are present.

“We undertook no commitment of this nature,” Konfourou said during the April 7 U.N. session.

“We have a fruitful cooperation relation with Russia, a state-to-state relation since 1960, and as a result of this cooperation with Russia, Mali continues to procure military materials needed for our security, and trainers and instructors from Russia are in Mali to train the forces how to use these materials acquired from Russia,” Konfourou said.

The United States and the European Union have sanctioned the Wagner Group for destabilizing activities in various countries. The mercenary group has also been accused of war crimes.

On April 10, Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council vote to create an independent mission to investigate the alleged massacre in Moura. Mali was one of the 17 African countries that abstained from voting in the U.N. General Assembly to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Mali is experiencing a political and security upheaval as it battles armed jihadist groups linked to Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida in the Sahel region. Jihadists have spilled over into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Islamic State continues to launch deadly attacks in Mali.

Mali has had a military-controlled government since June 2020, following two coups led by Col. Assimi Goita, who failed to fulfill a promise to hold elections in February and transition the country to civilian rule.