The conflict in Mali has intensified in the last month in a context of the withdrawal of French troops from Operation Barkhane and the reorganization of the jihadist groups operating in this area, especially the local branch of the Islamic State (IS). The constant attacks against the Army and the clashes between the armed groups themselves, which have caused dozens of deaths according to the United Nations in one of the bloodiest months of a conflict that has lasted a decade, but the most worrying trend is the increase in violence against the civilian population by all sides. The Human Rights Watch organization assures that the Malian Army, which already operates with the support of Russian instructors, is responsible for at least 71 civilian victims this year, an extreme that the Malian military government denies. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called on Mali and its international partners to respect their “international obligations” during anti-terrorist operations.
The withdrawal of Operation Barkhane from Mali, hastened by disagreement between Bamako authorities and French President Emmanuel Macron, is underway. The French bases of Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu have already been transferred to the Malian Armed Forces and the same will happen in the coming weeks with the bases of Gossi, Gao and Ménaka. In addition, Barkhane has seen his aerial intervention capacity limited due to the obstacles put in place by the Malian Executive.
Faced with this reduction in Barkhane’s operations, the local branch of the Islamic State has gone through a process of internal reorganization and intensification of its activity. After the death of its historical leader Abu Walid al Saharawi as a result of a French air attack in August 2021 and the death of its number two due to natural causes, power has been assumed by young and very violent leaders from the Peul and Arab. Since March 21, this local branch, formerly called the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (EIGS), has been renamed the Province of the Islamic State in the Sahel, which gives it greater autonomy and points to greater relevance within the terrorist organization.
The Islamic State is responsible for the brutal attacks against the towns of Tamalat and Insinane on March 8 and 9, in which, according to different sources, dozens of civilians of the Tuareg ethnic group were massacred, whom it accused of complicity with the Salvation Movement of Azawad (MSA), a Tuareg armed group with which it has frequent clashes. Both groups have been fighting for three weeks in the Ménaka region, also causing thousands of displaced people. IS claimed responsibility for the deaths of 250 combatants and civilians, while MSA sources raised the death toll to 400. A week later, the jihadists took responsibility for the attack on the Malian military post of Tessit on March 14, in in which 33 soldiers were killed and 14 were wounded, according to the Army General Staff.
In addition to Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have also been the scene of recent jihadist attacks. In this last country, a double attack committed on March 14 against a bus and a truck caused the death of 21 civilians while on the 24th six soldiers were assassinated in the town of Kolmane in the troubled Tillabéri region. In Burkina, the city of Djibo, in the north of the country, is under constant siege by the local branch of Al Qaeda.
The Islamic State is not the only terrorist group operating in the area. On March 4, the Al Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM) attacked Mali’s Mondoro barracks, killing 27 soldiers, according to a government count. In the statement attributing this action, JNIM assured that it was revenge for the massacre of civilians allegedly committed by the Malian Army near Diabaly, where some 35 suspected of collaborating with jihadist groups were imprisoned in a military barracks. they were summarily executed and their bodies burned.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report highlights that these executions, torture and arbitrary detention of civilians had intensified in Mali in recent months, committed by all sides. Several witnesses assured this organization that some of the crimes described had been committed in the presence of Russian military instructors that Western countries point to as paramilitaries of the Wagner Group, in a similar evolution to that experienced by the Central African Republic, where the United Nations denounced serious crimes against civilians attributed to Russian mercenaries in 2018. The Malian government denies both the extrajudicial executions, which it describes as fake news to discredit their Armed Forces, such as the presence of paramilitaries.
The HRW report indicates that since December 2021 there is evidence of the murder of 107 civilians, most of them executed after their arrest, including village chiefs, merchants, religious leaders and even children. Of these, 71 implicate the Malian security forces and 36 non-state armed groups, mainly jihadists. “We see a dramatic growth in the number of civilians, including suspects, killed by the Malian Army and by armed Islamist groups,” said Corinne Dufka, HRW director for the Sahel. “This total disregard for human life, which is expressed in blatant war crimes, should be investigated and the people involved should be punished for it,” she added.
The incidents occurred between December 2021 and the beginning of March 2022 in the regions of Segou and Mopti, in the center of the country, and Koulikoro, around the capital, Bamako. One of the most serious took place in early March. In the previous days, the Army detained dozens of civilians, almost all of them from the Peul ethnic group, supposedly for complicity with jihadist groups in different towns near Niono and transferred them to the Diabaly military barracks. On the night of March 1, 35 of them were forcibly removed and their bodies were found burned on March 3 near the village of Danguere Wotoro, 11 kilometers from Diabaly. Many of them had their hands tied behind their backs and blindfolded.
The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, expressed through his Twitter account on March 13 his “firm condemnation” of “the recent abuses committed in the center of Mali” after the first reports appeared. information on the death of these 35 civilians. Likewise, he showed the support of the European Union for the investigation opened by the United Nations to clarify the facts.
“There is a worsening of the situation in recent months,” says Ornella Moderan, an expert on the Sahel from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), “and it is difficult to investigate because information circulates little and badly, there is an atmosphere of silence” . She claims that she has had access to reports of human rights abuses and violations and that the HRW investigation has not surprised her. “It is difficult to ensure the participation of foreign elements in all this, but it is clear that the intensity of extrajudicial executions had not been seen until now in this conflict. All this in the last three or four months. In other words, it coincides both in time and with the geographical area of deployment of Russian soldiers, mercenaries, according to France and the United States, and Army instructors, according to the Malian government. “The risk of having ghost actors on the ground who don’t have legal personality is that it will be difficult to hold them accountable,” she adds.
Bamako has opened investigations despite everything and collects information to find out who was responsible for the crimes denounced by HRW. Virtually no announced investigations into human rights abuses and violations committed by security forces in Mali have come to any conclusion.
Follow all the international information in Facebook and Twitteror in our weekly newsletter.