In the wake of a damning UN report linking Russian mercenaries to a Malian massacre, the US State Department has said the Wagner Group may be using Mali as a secret arms depot to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine.
The Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian nationalist firebrand and longtime associate of President Vladimir Putin, has gained global notoriety in recent months for its vicious fighting in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the years preceding the invasion, Wagner developed as an amoral militia that would support authoritarian regimes for profit, unconstrained by regard for human rights or international humanitarian law.
“We have been informed that Wagner is seeking to transit material acquisitions to aid Russia’s war through Mali and is willing to use false paperwork for these transactions. In fact, there are indications that Wagner has been attempting to purchase military systems from foreign suppliers, and route these weapons through Mali as a third party,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said during a press briefing on Monday.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report last week concluding that there were “strong indications” that Malian soldiers and “foreign military personnel” carried out a massacre in the village of Moura in March 2022 marked by torture, sexual violence, and the killing of more than 500 people — most of them by summary execution. According to witnesses cited by the report, on March 27, 2022, in an attack targeting Katiba Macina, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, military helicopters fired indiscriminately on civilians, while troops on the ground herded people into the village center and shot indiscriminately at those attempting to flee. Over the next four days, an estimated 500 people are believed to have been summarily executed. Witnesses reported seeing groups of men shot by soldiers and dumped into a ditch. Shockingly, at least 58 women and girls were victims of sexual violence.
In October 2021, following two successive coups d’état, foreign military personnel began to appear in Mali. As explained by the UN report, the transitional Malian authorities have claimed the new military personnel in the country were “instructors,” who deployed to the country under a bilateral agreement with Russia. The OHCHR cited media reports of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicating that Mali in fact summoned the Wagner Group, which is reportedly operating in the country on a commercial basis. Witnesses cited in the UN report identified the presence of “armed white men” speaking an unknown language, who seemed to be overseeing the operation alongside Malian forces. These foreign personnel reportedly stayed for the duration of the operation, while Malian troops were rotated daily.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said he was “extremely disturbed” by the findings. “Summary executions, rape and torture during armed conflict amount to war crimes and could, depending on the circumstances, amount to crimes against humanity,” he said.
In response to the UN report, the US State Department said: “The United States is appalled by the disregard for human life exhibited by elements of the Malian Armed Forces in cooperation with the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group – a transnational criminal organization – during the operation in Moura, Mali in March of last year.”