Alou Diallo says she was drinking tea with her family one morning last month when groups of “white soldiers” invaded her village in central Mali, setting houses on fire and shooting dead suspected Islamic extremists. He ran to safety in the bush, but his son was shot while he was fleeing and then finished off as he lay on the ground.
“I watched my 16-year-old son die,” Diallo recalls during an interview with The Associated Press in the Mali capital, Bamako, where he lives in a makeshift camp for displaced people. Recounting that terrible Saturday in his village of Bamguel, the 47-year-old former rancher made no attempt to hide his anger at the troops, who he believes were Russian mercenaries who had arrived to turn his world upside down.
“I really want peace to return and things to go back to normal,” he added. “Here in Bamako I live a life that I did not choose.”
It has been more than a year since hundreds of fighters from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military contractor, began working alongside Mali’s armed forces to try to contain an insurgency by Islamic extremists in the West African country that has lasted for a long time. decade, say Western officials.
But diplomats, analysts and human rights groups warn that indiscriminate violence against civilians has increased since the mercenaries arrived, and that extremists linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have grown stronger, raising concerns. that the Russian presence will further destabilize the already troubled region.
More than 2,000 civilians have been killed since December 2021, up from 500 in the previous 12 months, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). a non-governmental organization that collects and analyzes information on political violence and protests around the world. At least a third of those deaths recorded last year were due to attacks involving the Wagner Group, according to data compiled by ACLED.
“They are killing civilians, and by their very presence, they give Malian security forces the green light to act on their worst tendencies,” says Michael Shurkin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of global programs at consulting group 14 North. Strategies.
Military contractor Wagner Group, which was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a millionaire businessman with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has beefed up Moscow’s troops in its invasion of Ukraine, but experts say it also operates in a handful of African countries.
Since the Malian army seized power in two coups beginning in 2020, a junta headed by Colonel Assimi Goita has maintained tense relations with the international community.
France sent troops to Mali in 2013 to help its former colony expel Islamic militants from northern parts of the country, but withdrew them in August as relations soured and anti-French sentiment grew among the population. The West says Mali is increasingly looking to Moscow for security issues, though the junta says it has only invited military trainers.
Alassane Maiga, head of communications for the board, insisted that the Wagner Group did not operate in the country. When asked about the attacks on civilians, Maiga said that the Mali government protects its citizens and their property. “The army’s protection and security missions are carried out with respect for human rights and international humanitarian law,” he added.
The Wagner Group did not respond to requests for comment. In a UN Security Council debate on Tuesday, Anna Evstigneeva, Russia’s deputy ambassador, rejected attempts by other governments to “mudder Russian assistance to Mali,” where Moscow has a bilateral agreement to help the transitional government. She did not mention the Wagner Group.
Up to 1,000 mercenaries have been deployed and the Wagner Group is paid nearly $11 million a month to provide security and training, according to a U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, which studies extremist violence.
The report said the Wagner Group forces are having difficulty making any significant gains, with jihadist violence on the rise. During the rainy season between June and September, when fighting usually subsides, there were more than 90 attacks on civilians and the military by an al-Qaeda-linked extremist group, compared with six in the same period a year earlier, it added, and an August attack on a barracks by an Islamic State-linked group killed at least 42 Malian soldiers.
In the bloodiest attack, the nonprofit NGO Human Rights Watch denounced that the Malian army and foreign forces believed to be Russian rounded up and killed some 300 men in the town of Moura in March. Some were believed to be Islamic extremists, but most were civilians. The investigation summoned 27 people, including witnesses, merchants, community leaders, diplomats and security analysts.
Mali’s Defense Ministry reported a similar incident at the time, but said it had killed 203 “terrorists” and arrested 51 others.
“There are extensive reports of human rights abuses throughout the region where they work,” says Victoria Nuland, US Undersecretary of State, about the Wagner Group mercenaries. “And we are concerned that these forces are not interested in the protection and security of the Malian people, but are instead interested in enriching themselves and ruthlessly exploiting the country, and are making the terrorism situation worse.”
Statement of Samuel Ramani
Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense and security think tank, says Russia is not very credible on counter-terrorism in Africa or beyond.
“What we have repeatedly seen is that Russia and the forces of the Wagner Group are much better at strengthening the grip of authoritarian regimes in power than they are at actually fighting rebels and terrorist groups,” Ramani says, citing his limited knowledge. terrain, strained relationships with lower-ranking officers, and a rigid command and control structure.
Many Malians accuse the military and the white soldiers who work with them of making arbitrary arrests of civilians herding cattle, cultivating fields or going to market. Most of them are ethnic Fulani, who are increasingly seen as targets by security forces suspected of supporting Islamic extremists.
Human rights groups say these alleged abuses help extremists, who harness popular grievances as a recruiting tool.
A 29-year-old cattle herder named Hamidou said he was arrested in November at his home in the central Mali village of Douentza, along with two other people and accused of being an Islamic militant. He was locked in a small room where he was tied up, beaten and interrogated by “white soldiers”.
“We were severely beaten every day. We didn’t think we would survive,” added Hamidou, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals. He assured that most of the detainees were of the Fulani ethnic group, like him. “From the day the Wagner (Group) arrived in Mali until today, arbitrary arrests and killings of Fulani civilians have increased enormously.”
The AP was unable to independently verify the entire account of him, but a human rights investigator who also asked not to be named for fear of reprisals said he saw the scars on Hamidou’s back and forehead after he was released.
Peacekeepers in Mali
Thousands of United Nations peacekeepers have been in Mali for nearly a decade to protect civilians from violence, but the Mali government has limited their ability to operate, and countries like Benin, Germany, Sweden, The Ivory Coast and Britain have announced troop withdrawals, according to the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent war.
Nuland, the US diplomat, said the Wagner Group has encouraged the junta to deny peacekeepers access to areas where it has a mandate to investigate abuses. Security “is becoming more difficult as the forces of the Wagner (Group) and others assume a larger role in the country and drive out UN peacekeepers,” she added.
Although many locals say they loathe the Wagner Group, they fear nothing will change until there is a new government after elections scheduled for February 2024.
“It is up to the Malians to decide what steps to take to return peace to Mali,” says Seydou Diawara, head of an opposition political group. “The force and pressure of the international community on the military will only worsen the security and humanitarian situation.”
This article is originally published on sandiegouniontribune.com