War of words erupts after killings in Mali anti-terror operation

Saturday April 16 2022

Soldiers of the Barkhane Force and the Malian army patrol in a street of Menaka, in the region of Liptako. The Mali Junta and Kremlin-backed Wagner Group have been accused of killing hundreds of people in a recent operation. PHOTO | FILE


Did the Malian junta, working with Russian security contractor Wagner Group, kill people wrongly labelled as terrorists? That was the question at the UN Security Council, where the West and Russia sparred over who should bear responsibility for the March operation that left hundreds of people dead in Moura following a counterterrorism operation by the Malian Armed Forces, with the alleged involvement of the Wagner Group.

France had tabled a draft calling for a “thorough and independent investigations to establish the facts” and bring to justice those responsible.

But this was opposed by both Beijing and Moscow, who saw it as unnecessary as the Malian authorities had promised to investigate.

“Like other council members, the United Kingdom is horrified by reports indicating that hundreds of people were killed in Moura,” said James Kariuki, UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN.

Victorious operation

The lamentations by the West were the opposite of the junta’s reactions. The Malian forces said the operation comprising land and air forces in Moura, where a group of terrorists was reportedly meeting.


The army says the nine-day operation ran from March 23 to 31, killing more than 200 fighters. Details about this operation came to the public only on April 1, via a junta statement.

Western countries were helping Mali fight the insurgents until recently when France, which led the coalition called Barkhane, pulled out of Mali in reaction to the 2020 coup.

France, which is currently embroiled in a diplomatic spat with its former colony, has been leading the calls for an investigation into the Moura operation, alongside the US, the European Union and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

They all cite intelligence for their claims that Malian forces committed the crimes with the backing of Russia-linked forces.

The French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs said it was concerned about the increase in abuses in central Mali since the beginning of 2022.

The US State Department spoke about "the extremely disturbing” stories of the large number of people killed, noting that it is "concerned that many reports suggest that the perpetrators were irresponsible forces of the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.”

EU High Representative Josep Borrell also in a statement linked “Russian elements” to the killings.

The HRW statement claimed that “the vast majority” of those killed were men of the Fulani pastoral ethnic group and also noted that some of the men killed were “believed to be suspected Islamist fighters”, citing sources on the ground.

“This is false, because the FAMa [Armed Forces of Mali] are multi-ethnic, patriotic and republican,” Col Souleymane Dembele, a spokesman for the army, told reporters.

Malian take

The international reaction attracted strong criticism from the Malian authorities who blame it on “people unhappy with the successes” made by the Malian army without Western help.

Col Dembele says the allegations were meant to create a climate of mistrust between the army and the local population.

Images of the aftermath of the operation provided by the military show scores of burnt down motorcycles, munitions, chemical components used in the manufacture of improvised explosive devices, as well as tonnes of cereal confiscated from the locals as ‘Zakat’.

The issue has been led to a rise in the anti-Western rhetoric within the local Malian population.

"A judicial visit will be carried out very soon on the site in Moura by the military prosecutor. He will be accompanied by a forensic doctor, a technical and scientific police team and investigators," said Col Soumaila Bagayoko, first deputy public prosecutor.

But Western powers want an independent investigation, which they say must be led by the UN Peacekeeping arm, Minusma.