By Paul Lorgerie
BAMAKO (Reuters) – It was market day in the town of Moura in central Mali when Malian troops backed by white mercenaries boarded helicopters and opened fire on confused residents, according to witnesses’ reports.
Bodejer Amadou saw the soldiers wave out over the city on the morning of March 27 and ran home. They arrested him hours later and led him to a riverbank on the outskirts of the city, where thousands of men were sitting with their hands tied.
Over the next four days, the men stayed in the scorching sun with some food or water and watched as soldiers gradually took groups aside, led them to the lip of a mass grave and shot them, Amadou and two other witnesses told Reuters.
“It was unthinkable,” he said, overwhelmed with exhaustion and emotion. “They came, they took 15, 20 people and lined them up. They made them kneel down and shoot them.”
Witnesses testified in the Malian capital, Bamako.
Most of the soldiers who killed civilians were Malians, they said. But dozens of white men in fatigue, who spoke what the residents thought were Russian, were actively involved, they said. French is widely spoken in Mali, but the government soldiers and the white men communicated in sign language as they did not speak the same language.
The white men were the first to get out of the helicopters and open fire on fleeing residents, four spectators said.
Reuters could not independently verify their accounts or visit Moura, a city of 10,000 people controlled by an Islamist group affiliated with al Qaeda.
Mali’s army said it killed 203 militants during a military operation in Moura. It rejects reports of executions and has not responded to a request from Reuters for comment.
The Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor that recently began working with the Malian army, could not be reached for comment.
But testimony strengthened evidence gathered by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which last week claimed that Malian soldiers assisted by suspected Russians killed about 300 civilians in Moura.
Reports have raised concerns that the presence of Wagner will further destabilize Mali, a dry and poor country home to groups linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda that have killed thousands in Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Western powers were strongly opposed to Wagner’s intervention, warning that it could incite violence. The UN has accused the group of killing civilians while working in the Central African Republic. Russian officials rejected reports of assaults.
The European Union has imposed sanctions on the group, which it says works on behalf of the Kremlin. Moscow rejects ties.
BOUND AS AN ANIMAL
Moura, in the floodplain on the Niger River, has been out of government control for years, residents said.
Militants introduce sharia law and their own tax system. They pressure men to cut their pants short and keep their beards long. They visit the city to buy food but live in the bush, residents said.
Some hit the market on March 27, they told Reuters. Human Rights Watch said the soldiers clashed with armed militants in the city that day.
At the riverbank, soldiers inspected the men’s trigger fingers and shoulders for signs that they had shot or carried weapons, Amadou said.
“They bound us like animals,” he said.
Soldiers appeared to select people for execution based on their ethnicity and attire, witnesses said.
Fulani shepherds, some of whom have been known to join Islamist groups, were highlighted, witnesses said. Those from the Bobo and Bella groups were ordered to dig the graves.
A soldier asked a man with a beard and cropped pants if he should pee. When he said no, the soldier ordered him to get up, said a witness who asked to remain anonymous.
“The soldier shot him in the back, approached him and shot him twice in the head.”
The white troops left after four days, but the Malian soldiers stayed briefly. One gave a speech and apologized for the killings, Amadou and two other witnesses said.
Human Rights Watch called the incident “the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict”.
Mali’s military police have opened an investigation, as has the UN, although the UN said it has not gained access to Moura.
The Malian army on April 5 denied the allegations, saying it had carried out a professional operation to target Islamist militants in the city.
“The total control of the site provided the opportunity to search, identify and sort terrorists disguised and hidden among the civilian population,” the army said in a statement.
Both Mali, whose government took power in a military coup in 2021, and the Kremlin have previously said that the Russian forces are not mercenaries, but trainers helping local troops with equipment purchased from Russia.
France, Mali’s former colonizer, has had thousands of troops fighting militants in the country for nearly a decade, but is withdrawing due to frayed ties with the military government, including due to the arrival of Russian entrepreneurs.
(Report by Paul Lorgerie; Written by Nellie Peyton and Edward McAllister, edited by Angus MacSwan)