Malian troops and “white soldiers” believed to be from the Russian paramilitary group Wagner have killed 13 civilians in Mali, local sources told AFP, an allegation denied by the African nation’s army.
France, the United States, and their Western allies have accused Mali’s military-dominated government of hiring Wagner mercenaries in their fight against a long-running jihadist insurgency.
The murky group’s fighters have been linked with rights abuses and war crimes in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.
The government has denied the claim and says the Russians working with its army are military instructors.
A local politician told AFP on condition of anonymity that Malian soldiers arrived in the village of Guelledje in central Mali on Sunday in large numbers “with white soldiers.”
“There was gunfire and arrests. We counted at least 13 dead,” he said on Monday.
Another local lawmaker, also speaking on condition of anonymity, corroborated the report. He said three people from the same family were among the victims.
A Guelledje resident said his village was attacked because “the Malian army and the white Wagner soldiers see it as a ‘jihadist’ settlement.”
An official with a local association promoting the Peul culture, one of the west African country’s main ethnic groups, told AFP on Monday that more than 20 Peul civilians were killed and arrested in Guelledje.
“They’re putting us in the same box. Not all Peuls are jihadists. Those who were killed were innocent civilians,” he added.
A Malian military source told AFP the army “categorically rejected these accusations.”
Mali has been battling a severe security, political, and humanitarian crisis since 2012 after jihadist and separatist insurrections erupted in the north of the Sahel state.
The army, which seized power in a 2020 coup, has broken with traditional partner and colonial power France in favor of Russia.
It claims to have turned around the situation on the battlefield and pushed back the jihadists.
The army has long been accused of abuses, including by the UN stabilization mission deployed in Mali.
The authorities say they respect human rights and open investigations where necessary, but the results are rarely made public.
There were also new clashes between armed groups in recent days in the northern regions of Gao and Menaka, with an unconfirmed toll from military officials and jihadists suggesting dozens had been killed.
Two civilians, including a child, were also killed during an attack on a bus by armed men between Ansongo and Menaka, police said Tuesday.
Gao and Menaka have for months been plagued by fighting between the army, armed groups, and jihadists, with civilians caught in the crossfire.