Widespread killings, rapes and looting in northeast Mali have been reported this year forcing thousands of people to flee and seek refuge, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
A report released by the rights group on Thursday documents six attacks in the Gao region and two in Menaka between January and June. Unconfirmed reports from aid workers and witnesses suggest hundreds of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands were forced to flee.
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Dozens of witnesses told investigators that fighters wore identifiable turbans, rode motorbikes and pick-up trucks, and were armed with assault rifles and sometimes rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
“Islamist armed groups are brutally attacking civilians and fuelling a massive humanitarian emergency,” said HRW senior Sahel researcher Ilaria Allegrozzi.
“Security has deteriorated sharply amid clashes between two armed Islamist groups as they seek to control supply routes and increase their influence,” the rights watchdog said in a report, adding that it could not confirm the total death toll since January.
HRW said the findings were based on interviews with 52 people including “39 witnesses to abuses, 7 members of Malian civil society organisations, and 6 representatives of international organisations”.
According to witnesses, the fighters spoke the local languages Tamashek, Fulfulde, Songhai, and Hausa, as well as Arabic, and sometimes carried the ISIL/ISIS flag.
HRW noted that “amid the mounting abuses”, the departure from July 1 to year’s end of United Nations peacekeepers at Bamako’s demand “makes things worse”.
“The departure of UN peacekeepers means that the Malian authorities need to ramp up efforts to protect civilians and work closely with international partners to ensure that displaced people have access to aid and basic services,” said Allegrozzi.
Mali has been under military rule since August 2020 when army officers, angered over failures to tackle armed groups who have been active in the West African state since 2012, forced out the country’s elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Since taking over, the interim military government in Bamako has aligned politically and militarily with Russia and broken ties with traditional ally France.
France’s clout has shrunk due to the perceived inability of French troops to halt violence by armed groups in former French colonies. It has also led to a rise in anti-French sentiment in those countries.
HRW said Russia’s Wagner Group has been implicated in “atrocities” in several African countries, including Mali, and documented “serious abuses” by Malian security and “apparent Wagner forces during counter-insurgency operations in central Mali”.
In 2022, the Malian army and white fighters believed to be Russian were accused of executing over 300 people in the town of Moura during an operation against armed groups, which the government denied.