The French military says it has video footage of Russian mercenaries burying bodies near an army base in northern Mali that French forces departed earlier this week.
The French claim the video is evidence that Russian mercenaries are preparing a smear campaign now that the base has been handed over to Malian forces.
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Aerial surveillance footage taken by the French military on Thursday morning and provided to The Associated Press shows what appear to be 10 Caucasian soldiers covering approximately a dozen Malian bodies with sand at a location 4km (2.5 miles) east of the Gossi military base in the north of Mali.
In the video, one of the soldiers appears to be filming the burial site.
The Caucasian soldiers in the video are believed to be members of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force, according to a French military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the matter.
Several tweets with pictures of the bodies have already been posted on accounts that support Russia, or fake accounts created by the Wagner Group, the officer said.
The tweets blame the French for the killings and the burials, according to the French officer.
One tweet from an account named Dia Diarra, and allegedly created by the Wagner Group, states: “This is what the French left behind when they left base at #Gossi. These are excerpts from a video that was taken after they left! We cannot keep silent about this!”
The French army transferred control of the Gossi base to Malian soldiers on Tuesday, in what the French said was a safe, orderly and transparent manner.
Later that day a “French sensor observed a dozen Caucasian individuals, most likely belonging to the Wagner Group”, and a detachment from the Malian army arrive at the Gossi site and unload equipment, the French military said in a confidential report.
The video was an effort to discredit France’s operations in northern Mali and is part of a coordinated campaign of multiple information attacks that has been ongoing for months, the French military said.
France’s army said comparing the photos published on Twitter against images taken by a special sensor allows them to “draw a direct line” between Wagner’s activities and what has been falsely attributed to French soldiers.
“This incident at Gossi camp will further put Mali’s junta at odds with the international community, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they come up with an unrealistic explanation,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan-based organisation focused on economics and policy.
Lyammouri said the apparent staging of bodies buried near the camp can be seen as the latest example of Russia’s disinformation campaign to damage France’s reputation and it also reflects badly on Mali’s army, which must have been aware of the Russians’ actions.
He said the aerial images provided by the French military have largely stymied the Russian disinformation effort.
“This is a big win for France who’s been facing tough times about its reputation in Mali,” he said.
In February, France announced it would withdraw its troops from Mali amid tensions with the country’s ruling military and the West African country’s decision to employ Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
Some 1,000 Russian mercenaries are believed to be operating in Mali, according to military experts.