UN experts: Malian military and 'white' soldiers killed 33

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. experts said in a new report that Malian armed forces allegedly carried out an operation with “white-skinned soldiers” near the border with Mauritania in March, shooting and burning at least 33 civilians in one of several operations where the country’s ruling military appeared to work closely with likely Russian mercenaries.

In the first three months of this year, they said 543 civilians were killed and 269 injured, according to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.

In the grim and wide-ranging report obtained Friday by The Associated Press, the panel of experts said the political situation remains tense and warned that the 2015 peace agreement between Mali’s government and non-extremist armed independence groups “is threatened by a potential risk of confrontation between the parties for the first time since July 2017.”

They said 12 million people need humanitarian assistance, a sharp increase from 5.9 million last year, including 1.9 million people facing the threat of “acute malnutrition” during the current lean season which lasts through August.

Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies. Insecurity has worsened with attacks on civilians and U.N. peacekeepers.

In August 2020, Malian President Boubacar Ibrahim Keita, who died in January, was overthrown in a coup that included Assimi Goita, then an army colonel. Last June, Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government after carrying out his second coup in nine months and later in the year it reportedly decided to allow the deployment of Russia’s Wagner group.

Wagner passes itself off as a private military contractor but its long believed commitment to Russian interests have become apparent in Ukraine, where its mercenaries are among the Russian forces currently fighting in the country’s separatist eastern regions. In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner has gained substantial footholds for Russia in Central African Republic and Sudan as well as Mali, where analysts said its role goes beyond merely providing security services.

The 78-page report by the U.N. experts doesn’t name Wagner in connection with any incidents, but it describes several operations where Malian forces were joined by white soldiers, including one on March 5 in the town of Robinet El Ataye in the Segou region near the border with Mauritania.

According to testimony the experts said, a group of “white-skinned soldiers” arrived in the town, which has a water well frequented by Mauritanians who cross the border in search of pasture for cattle, rounded up men and boys, tied their hands behind their backs and blindfolded them. Women and children were told to go home and the soldiers that reportedly stripped houses of “all possessions including bedding, cellular phones, jewelry, cooking utensils and clothing,” they said.

Later in the morning, the panel said, Malian soldiers arrived in the village started beating the bound and blindfolded men “with heavy sticks used by the herders on their flocks.”

The women heard screams but were blocked by soldiers from leaving their homes, and the Malian forces then released some younger men and carried off at least 33 men, 29 Mauritanians and four Malians who were ethnic Tuaregs, it said.

The women waited for the return of the men, but the panel said they were notified by relatives a day later that the men’s bodies had been found about 4 kilometers away, and they “had been shot and then burnt,” the experts said.

The panel said “a similar pattern of pillage and beatings” occurred at five other locations, but the only place civilians were killed was at Robinet El Ataye.

“In two other locations visited by the Malian Armed Forces, a helicopter carrying `white-skinned soldiers’ allegedly landed at the beginning of the operations” it said.

On the political front, the experts said the 2015 peace agreement is stalled, none of the political and institutional reforms in the agreement have been finalized, a high-level decision-making meeting on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration quotas for combatants initially planned for Feb. 9, 2021 has yet to take place, and there is “a perceptible lack of trust between the government and the signatory armed groups.”