In the wake of a damning UN report linking Russian mercenaries to a Malian massacre, the US State Department has said the Wagner Group may be using Mali as a secret arms depot to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine. The Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian nationalist firebrand and longtime associate of President Vladimir Putin, has gained global notoriety in recent months for its vicious fighting in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the years preceding the invasion, Wagner developed as an amoral militia that would support authoritarian regimes for profit, unconstrained by regard for human rights or international humanitarian law.“We have been informed that Wagner is seeking to transit material acquisitions to aid Russia’s war through Mali and is willing to use false paperwork for these transactions. In fact, there are indications that Wagner has been attempting to purchase military systems from foreign suppliers, and route these weapons through Mali as a third party,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said during a press briefing on Monday. The UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report last week concluding that there were “strong indications” that Malian soldiers and “foreign military personnel” carried out a massacre in the village of Moura in March 2022 marked by torture, sexual violence, and the killing of more than 500 people — most of them by summary execution. According to witnesses cited by the report, on March 27, 2022, in an attack targeting Katiba Macina, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, military helicopters fired indiscriminately on civilians, while troops on the ground herded people into the village center and shot indiscriminately at those attempting to flee. Over the next four days, an estimated 500 people were believed to have been summarily executed. Witnesses reported seeing groups of men shot by soldiers and dumped into a ditch. Shockingly, at least 58 women and girls were victims of sexual violence,In October 2021, following two successive coups d’état, foreign military personnel began to appear in Mali, as explained by the UN report, the transitional Malian authorities have claimed the new military personnel in the country were “instructors,” who deployed to the country under a bilateral agreement with Russia. The UN cited media reports of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicating that Mali in fact summoned the Wagner group, which is reportedly operating in the country on a commercial basis. Witnesses cited in the UN report identified the presence of “armed white men” speaking an unknown language, who seemed to be overseeing the operation alongside Malian forces. These foreign personnel reportedly stayed for the duration of the operation, while Malian troops were rotated daily.UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said he was “extremely disturbed” by the findings. “Summary executions, rape and torture during armed conflict amount to war crimes and could, depending on the circumstances, amount to crimes against humanity,” he said. In response to the UN report, the US State Department said: “The United States is appalled by the disregard for human life exhibited by elements of the Malian Armed Forces in cooperation with the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group – a transnational criminal organization – during the operation in Moura, Mali in March of last year.”Concerns about Wagner’s burgeoning involvement in African affairs have been mounting for years.In 2021, an International Crisis Group analysis warned that the Central African Republic’s use of Wagner mercenaries was sowing divisions domestically and causing alarm among international allies. “Rather than eradicating armed groups, the contractors are perpetrating abuses that increasingly drive violence in the provinces and fuel guerrilla warfare against government troops by rebels scattered in the bush,” the report notes. In February 2022, the Brookings Institution warned of Wagner’s propensity toward rights abuses in Africa as a means of helping authoritarian regiimes quash dissent in exchange for mineral wealth. As payment for helping Sudanese authorities stifle local uprisings in 2017, according to Brookings, Prigozhin was paid with exclusive gold mining rights in Sudan.The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported in May 2022 that Wagner mercenaries had been responsible for myriad atrocities in Mali, including having burnt an elderly woman to death in her home. The CSIS report warned the international community must take note, given the natural synergies between profit-driven mercenary groups and authoritarian regimes: “Because they tolerate human rights abuses and require no accountability from host nations, Wagner and other Russian [private military groups] are particularly appealing to illiberal regimes that already do not prioritize human rights concerns. Mali, for instance, has long faced human rights challenges, but the military regime that gained power in a 2021 coup — the third Malian coup in a decade and second within a nine-month period—is more interested in securing its own power and longevity than in addressing human rights or stabilization concerns. Therefore, Wagner’s atrocities in Mali are likely to continue unchecked.”The Wagner Group is subject to numerous US and EU sanctions. In his statement this week, Miller suggested new sanctions would soon be announced against the organization. “We have sanctioned a number of entities and individuals across multiple continents that support Wagner’s military operations, and we will have more to share on this question soon,” Miller said.
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