Mass executions, including of civilians, killings often carried out without interrogation. Plus the theft and confiscation of cell phones to eliminate all evidence. New York Times journalists reached out to witnesses of the Moura massacre in central Mali, who described the hell that soldiers and accompanying foreigners had prepared for them. According to diplomats, officials and representatives of human rights organizations, they were members of the Russian Wagner Group. – This is the outpost of Russia’s attempts to oust representatives of Western countries from there. And thanks to the fact that it is an informal structure, mercenaries can act more freely and without inhibitions – comments PISM analyst Jędrzej Czerep in an interview with tvn24.pl.
The first reports of the massacre in the town of Moura in central Mali appeared in early March. Now, New York Times journalists have reached out to witnesses who described the hell that the soldiers had prepared for them, theoretically supposed to pursue Islamic fighters who had been operating in the region for years.
As the “NYT” writes, it all started on March 27, on the last Sunday before Ramadan. The local market was filled with the towns of Moura. Suddenly, five low-flying helicopters appeared above their heads. Shots were fired, people started to flee in panic, but it soon turned out that they had nowhere to go, because soldiers emerged from the helicopters and quickly surrounded the outskirts of the city so as to effectively block all escape routes.
Many of the soldiers were Malian but, according to eyewitnesses, they were accompanied by white foreigners dressed in military uniforms and speaking a language that is neither English nor French.
These foreigners – according to diplomats, officials and human rights organizations – belonged to an informal Russian military organization known as the Wagner Group.
Five bloody days
Some local politicians and activists say that between 27 and 31 March Malian soldiers and their Russian allies plundered homes, held captives and executed hundreds of men.
From the accounts of witnesses quoted by the New York Times, a picture emerges of five days that left a bloody stigma.
There were detentions on Sunday, March 27. Mass executions began on Monday. According to witnesses, the victims were both civilians and unarmed fighters. The soldiers selected up to 15 people at a time, checking their fingers and arms for marks left by the regular use of weapons. The executions were carried out in front of other captives who were only a few meters away from them.
During this time, Russian mercenaries chased people on the streets and broke into houses. “White soldiers killed anyone who tried to escape,” says Bara, a cattle trader who was himself among the detainees, quoted by the American daily, Bara.
On Tuesday, Malian soldiers ordered the inhabitants who were hiding there to leave their homes. Russian mercenaries took care of it. 24-year-old Modi recalls that two white men were firing through the door of his house and the bullets barely passed him.
The shepherd Hamadou reports that when he left his home on Tuesday, “there were bodies everywhere.” When the stench became unbearable, the soldiers ordered the owners of the carts to pick up the bodies and others to collect the dry grass. The soldiers poured fuel over some of the bodies and set them on fire in front of the captives.
Further hearings were held on Wednesday, including women and children. There was also an execution.
The soldiers and their Russian allies departed on Thursday, March 31, after killing the last six prisoners. According to Hamadou, a Malian soldier told a group of prisoners that they had killed “all the bad people.” He apologized for good people who “died by accident”.
Origin or clothing can become a judgment
According to witnesses, both soldiers and foreign mercenaries killed prisoners at close range, often without interrogating them, using only their ethnic origin or clothing. Foreigners prowled the city blindly killing people inside their homes, stealing jewelry and confiscating cell phones to eliminate all evidence.
However, this failed – using satellite photos, the New York Times identified the sites of at least two mass graves that matched witnesses’ accounts of the places where the prisoners were executed and buried.
The Malian army and authorities have not responded to repeated requests from the “NYT” for comment on the events.
“We had a home, but now we are strangers in our own country”
“We thought the white soldiers would free us from the jihadists, but they are more dangerous,” says Oumar.
Ten days after the end of the siege, two Malian government ministers offered food to residents, claiming that the army had brought peace and security. On Malian television, local officials praised the military operation.
However, soon the militants returned and kidnapped the deputy mayor. His fate is still unknown.
According to Bara, one evening militants came to the village and announced that anyone who loves life should leave the village by 6am the next day. Many of the townspeople listened.
– We had a home, but now we are strangers in our own country – he adds.
The “proxy force” of the Russian Ministry of Defense
Internal conflicts in Mali have dragged on for a decade. The military fights against Islamic militants, initially with the help of French forces and later other European countries. However, as relations worsened between France and the new Malian authorities, which took power last year in a military coup, French forces began to withdraw from Mali and were replaced by the Wagner Group.
The activities of the Wagner Group are described by the US Treasury Department as the “proxy force” of the Russian defense ministry, and analysts describe the group’s activities as an extension of Russian foreign policy.
Since the Wagner Group arrived in Ukraine in 2014, mercenary activities have been reported in Libya, Syria and sub-Saharan African countries, including the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Sudan and now Mali, writes the New York Times.
“For-post of Russian attempts to oust representatives of Western countries from there”
Dr. Jędrzej Czerep, an analyst of the Polish Institute of International Affairs for the Middle East and Africa, in an interview with tvn24.pl, indicates that the Wagner Group is trying to be in the West African region “the front line of Russian attempts to oust representatives of Western countries from there”. – And thanks to the fact that it is an informal structure, they can operate more freely and without inhibitions – he adds.
He points out that the Russian mercenaries are “self-sufficient”. – In addition to the fact that they earn for themselves, because they receive payment from the governments of the countries for which they provide services, they also receive contracts for the extraction of valuable raw materials, including gold – says Czerep. “The war economy we see at its worst,” he comments.
Why do vagnerists operate in Mali? – Because this is the only place where they actually fight jihadists – explains the analyst. Referring to the Moura massacre, Dr. Czerep points out that this town was the personal and logistic base of the local jihadists. He added that the attacks were aimed at the Fulani people, an ethnic group inhabiting West African countries, because this is where most of the local jihadists come from, who are in turn the most active part of the coalition with al-Qaeda in that region. Czerep believes that the actions of the Wagner Group in Moura were carried out according to the methods of the “classic Russian purge – ‘first we shoot, then ask what it’s called'”.
“Security Services” provided by vagnerists
The Malian authorities hailed the actions of the military and mercenaries as a great victory in the fight against extremist groups. They claim to have killed more than 200 militants and arrested more than 50 others, but do not mention civilian casualties. They deny the presence of Wagnerists, saying only that they have a contract with Russia to provide “instructors.”
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Italian TV in May that members of the Wagner Group were present in Mali “on a commercial basis” providing “security services”. According to the most conservative estimates by witnesses and analysts, the death toll of the Moura massacre ranged from 300 to 400, with the majority of the victims being civilians.
In turn, according to the reports of the UN mission in Mali, nearly 500 civilians were killed in joint military and mercenary operations.
Wagner’s group and the war in Ukraine
The Wagner Group is believed to be led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a pro-Kremlin oligarch closely associated with President Vladimir Putin. In a written response to questions posted by the New York newspaper, Prigozhin praised the current leader of Mali, his military, and the activities in Moura. He called the reports of the presence of Wagnerists in Mali a “fairy tale” and added that the group did exist. However, he assured that “wherever there are Russian contractors, real or fictitious, they never violate human rights.”
On Wednesday, the Court of the European Union in Luxembourg upheld the personal sanctions imposed in 2020 by the Council of the Union on Prigozhin, who was punished for involving Wagnerists in Libya. “Following serious violations of human rights in Libya, the Council adopted restrictive measures in October 2020 against Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close links to the Wagner Group involved in military operations in the country. The decision was extended in July 2021.” the court recalled.
There are also numerous reports of the participation of Wagnerists in the war in Ukraine.
At the end of March, a spokesman Pentagon John Kirby reported that Russia had brought around 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group to Donbas. On Tuesday, the UNIAN agency, citing the findings of, inter alia, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), informed that Ukrainian forces had managed to defeat the Wagnerists in the region.
Moscow officially denies any ties with the Wagner Group.
tvn24.pl, New York Times, PAP
Main photo source: Ministre des Armées