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Executions, torture and looting: Wagner Russian mercenaries accused of abuses in Africa

This undated photograph handed out by French military shows three Russian mercenaries, right, in northern Mali.
This undated photograph handed out by French military shows three Russian mercenaries, right, in northern Mali. Copyright AP/AP
Copyright AP/AP
By Joshua Askew
Published on Updated
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Authorities in Mali are under pressure to end these violations and hold those responsible to account.

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Wagner fighters, working with local armed groups, have been accused of committing grave human rights violations in Mali. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that Russian mercenaries and Mali's armed forces had "summarily executed and forcibly disappeared several dozen civilians" since December 2022. 

The US-based organisation said Wagner had also destroyed and looted civilian property, allegedly torturing detainees in an army camp. 

Wagner guns for hire, headed by the infamous Yevgeny Prigozhin, have been involved in shady business on the African continent for years. 

It has accrued a massive fortune "protecting weak African regimes in exchange for their gold mines", Mark Beissinger, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, told Euronews back in March. 

“I was at the market when the shooting started [and] I saw three military helicopters flying low, one of them firing,” said one 28-year-old man in Mali to HRW. 

“People fled in all directions. … I took my motorbike and rode as fast as I could. I saw two people falling on the ground behind me, shot from the helicopters.”

Between March and May, HRW spoke to 40 people, including witnesses, victims' families and officials, and scrutinised video evidence, finding that Malian armed forces had committed grave abuses while fighting Islamist militants in the country's centre. 

During all the operations, except the one, witnesses reported seeing armed men who they described as “Russians,” or “Wagner". 

A large number of “white” foreign fighters in uniform carried out an assault on the village of Séguéla in February, which resulted in beatings, looting and the arrest of 17 men.

Eight of their bodies were later found.

"These cases are a fraction of the abuses committed by the Malian armed forces and affiliated foreign fighters in Mali in the past year," said HRW.

Mali has not officially admitted that Wagner fighters are inside the country, despite growing evidence of their activities and abuses. 

In December 2021, the government said Russian military instructors were there as part of a bilateral agreement. This provoked condemnation from the United States and its European allies. 

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has previously acknowledged Wagner "provides security services" in Mali. 

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The Russian mercenaries have filled a gap left by former colonial power France, which was previously working to combat jihadist groups in the region, but pulled out in 2022 amid a tide of anti-French sentiment. 

Responding to HRW on 20 July, the Malian Foreign Minister said his country's armed forces “conduct military operations completely autonomously.” 

Last week, boss Prigozhin said his mercenaries would head to the African continent, following Wagner's short-lived mutiny. 

We will train, raise our level and set off for a new journey to Africa,” he said.

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