Mali's army and Russian mercenaries accused of killing dozens of civilians in Kidal region

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's army and Russian mercenaries killed dozens of civilians during a military operation last month in northern Mali, civil organization and community members alleged Friday, amid a surge in violence after the ruling junta broke off a peace agreement with rebel groups.

The killings took place from June 20 to 29 in the Abeibara in the Kidal region, the civil society groups and residents said. The Malian military says it has no knowledge of the alleged killings, but says military operations are taking place throughout the country.

The region is a former stronghold of a rebellion by militants in the Tuareg ethnic group who are fighting the army in a conflict where civilians increasingly have become the main victims. Some of the militants have formerly been allied with al-Qaida.

Hamadine Driss Ag Mohamed, son of Abeibara’s village chief, told The Associated Press on Friday that Malian soldiers and fighters from the Russian mercenary group Wagner had killed 46 civilians.

“The Malian and Wagner soldiers executed old men and shepherds and stole everything they found in the camps such as money and valuable jewelry,” he said.

Mali and its neighbors Burkina Faso and Niger have long battled insurgencies by armed groups, including many allied with the al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

Following military coups in all three nations in recent years, the ruling juntas have expelled French forces and have sought military help instead from Russia’s mercenary units, such as the private security company Wagner and its likely successor, Africa Corps.

In December 2023, a United Nations peacekeeping force created 10 years earlier and aimed at stabilizing Mali after a Tuareg rebellion in 2012, pulled out of the country at the request of the junta, which called the mission a failure.

Following last month's violence in Abeibara, images of lifeless bodies and incinerated campsites circulated on social networks for several days. The Associated Press has not been able to verify them.

Citizen’s Observatory for Monitoring and Defending the Human Rights of the Azawad People, a civil society organization also known as Kal akal, said in a statement Friday that there were at least 60 civilians killed in the Abeibara area and that they were buried in mass graves.

The group denounced “a vast campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Russians of the Wagner group, in the company of the Malian army.”

A spokesman for the Malian army, Col. Maj. Souleymane Dembélé, said the military was unaware of the alleged killings. “It’s true that there are military operations underway throughout the national territory,” Dembélé told the AP over the phone. “But I have no information on these accusations.”

More than a decade of instability has followed the Tuareg rebellion, though in 2015 the Tuareg rebel groups signed the peace deal with the government that was welcomed by the United Nations.

But following the military coup in 2020, Mali’s junta broke the peace agreement with the Tuareg rebel groups and attacked their stronghold of Kidal in 2023. Since then, Kidal has been plagued by violence, particularly against civilians.