UN experts: Malian military and ‘white’ soldiers killed 33

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — UN experts said in a new report that Malian forces allegedly carried out an operation involving “white-skinned soldiers” near the border with Mauritania in March, shooting dead and burning at least 33 civilians in one of several operations by the ruling military of the country seemed to work closely with probably Russian mercenaries.

According to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, 543 civilians were killed and 269 injured in the first three months of this year.

In the somber and far-reaching report given to The Associated Press on Friday, the panel of experts said the political situation remained tense and warned that the 2015 peace deal between the Malian government and non-extremist armed independence groups was “hampered by a potential risk threatens confrontation between the parties for the first time since July 2017.”

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

Mali has struggled to contain an Islamist extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were ousted from power in Mali’s northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began attacking the Malian army and its allies. Insecurity has been exacerbated by attacks on civilians and UN peacekeepers.

In August 2020, Malian President Boubacar Ibrahim Keita, who died in January, was overthrown in a coup that also included then-army colonel Assimi Goita. Last June, Goita was sworn in as president of an interim government after staging his second coup in nine months, and later in the year she reportedly decided to allow Russia’s Wagner Group to operate.

Wagner poses as a private military contractor, but his long-felt commitment to Russian interests has been evident in Ukraine, where his mercenaries are part of Russian forces currently fighting in the country’s separatist eastern regions. 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 goes beyond simply providing security services.

The 78-page report by the UN experts does not name Wagner in connection with incidents, but describes several operations in which Malian forces joined forces with 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 witnesses, the experts said, a group of “white-skinned soldiers” arrived in the town, which has a waterfront frequented by Mauritanians who cross the border in search of cattle pasture, rounded up men and boys and tied their hands on their backs and blindfolded them. Women and children were told to go home, and the soldiers, who reportedly looted from the homes “all belongings including bedding, cell phones, jewellery, cooking utensils and clothing,” they said.

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

The women heard screams but were prevented from leaving their homes by soldiers, and Malian forces then released some younger men and abducted at least 33 men, 29 Mauritanians and four Malians, who were ethnic Tuareg, sources said.

The women were waiting for the men to return, 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 burned,” the experts said .

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

“At 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, experts said the 2015 peace accord has stalled, none of the deal’s political and institutional reforms have been completed, and a high-level decision-making meeting on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration quotas for combatants was initially scheduled for February 24 scheduled September 2021 has yet to take place and there is “a noticeable lack of trust between the government and the signing armed groups”.

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