by By EDITH M. LEDERER
UNITED NATIONS (AP) – UN experts say 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 the at least 33 civilians in one of several operations where the country’s ruling military appeared to be working closely with likely Russian mercenaries.
In the first three months of this year, they said 543 civilians had been killed and 269 injured, according to the United Nations 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 accord between the Malian government and independent armed groups not extremists “is threatened by a potential risk of confrontation between the parties for the first time since July 2017.”
They said 12 million people were in need of humanitarian aid, a sharp increase from 5.9 million last year, including 1.9 million people at risk of ‘acute malnutrition’ during the lean season current one which lasts until August.
Mali has been struggling to contain an extremist Islamic insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were driven from power in towns in northern Mali with the help of a French-led military operation, but they have regrouped in the desert and began to launch attacks against the Malian army and its allies. . Insecurity has worsened with attacks against civilians and UN blue helmets.
In August 2020, Malian President Boubacar Ibrahim Keita, who died in January, was overthrown in a coup that involved then-army colonel Assimi Goita. 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 he reportedly decided to allow the deployment of the Russian Wagner group .
Wagner poses as a private military contractor, but his longstanding commitment to Russian interests has become evident in Ukraine, where his mercenaries are part of Russian forces currently fighting in breakaway regions in the east of the country. In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner has gained a foothold for Russia in the Central African Republic and Sudan as well as in Mali, where analysts said his role went beyond simply providing security services.
The 78-page report by UN experts does not name Wagner in connection with any incidents, but it does describe 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 expert testimony, 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 livestock, gathered men and boys with their hands tied behind their backs and blindfolded. The women and children were ordered to return home and the soldiers who allegedly stripped the houses of “all their possessions, including bedding, cell phones, jewelry, cooking utensils and clothes”, they stated.
Later that morning, the panel said, Malian soldiers who had arrived in the village began beating the bound and blindfolded men “with heavy sticks used by shepherds on their flocks.”
The women heard screams but were prevented by soldiers from leaving their homes, and Malian forces then freed younger men and took away at least 33 men, 29 Mauritanians and four ethnic Tuareg Malians, he said. he adds.
The women waited for the men to return, but the panel said they were told by relatives a day later that the men’s bodies were found about 4 kilometers away and that they “were shot and then burned”, said the experts.
The panel said “a similar pattern of looting and beatings” occurred in five other locations, but the only place where civilians were killed was in Robinet El Ataye.
“In two other places visited by the Malian Armed Forces, a helicopter carrying ‘white-skinned soldiers’ reportedly landed at the start of operations,” he said.
On the political front, experts said the 2015 peace accord has stalled, none of the accord’s political and institutional reforms have been finalized, a high-level decision-making meeting on quotas for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants originally scheduled for February 9, 2021 has not yet taken place, and there is “a noticeable lack of trust between the government and the signatory armed groups”.