The Russian tenants of the Wagner group spread chaos in West Africa

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The man knew what to expect from Islamist fighters. They appeared at his door year after year, demanding money or animals – the taxes he paid to survive. Then one morning in March, at the threat of his rural community, a confusing new face suddenly appeared: white men in military exhaustion, shouting in language he did not recognize.

“They were shooting people. People in their homes, ”he said. “Everywhere the corpses were falling to the ground.”

At least 300 people are believed to have been killed in the central Malian town of Maura, although he and other eyewitnesses speculate that the number could be even higher. Similar accounts have emerged across the West African country since hundreds of Russian mercenaries joined the Malian army this winter in a battle to retake territory from al Qaeda and Islamic State loyalists.

Wagner’s rented guns – a secret hand in the Kremlin, according to the United States and its Western allies – have been repeatedly accused of war crimes, leaving a trail of atrocities across the Middle East and Africa. According to Western intelligence officials and security analysts, Love returned to Moscow to help Vladimir Putin’s government in the face of growing economic isolation caused by the war in Ukraine.

In Libya, U.S. defense officials say Wagner’s agents planted explosives in children’s toys. In the Central African Republic, human rights investigators have reported that tenants have sexually abused young women and girls.

In Mali, where rebels have seized large swathes of the country, eyewitnesses have told the Washington Post that they have killed many men believed to be Russian operatives. Innocent people in recent months under the guise of restoring peace.

“There are a lot of eyewitness accounts of the presence of white soldiers speaking unknown languages,” said Henny Nasibia, a senior researcher at the Location of Armed Conflict and Event Data Project (ACLED), which documentes violent incidents around the world. Mounting visual evidence, he added, “strongly advises that they are not private Russian military contractors and conventional Russian forces.”

Between 800 and 1,000 Russian tenants are now active in Mali, focusing on Africa, according to U.S. military officials, providing services that cost the Malian military government up to $ 10 million a month. They guard the presidential palace, officials say, and are tasked with tracking extremists in Scrabland.

The number of Malians fleeing to neighboring Mauritania has risen since Wagner’s landing. According to the UN refugee agency, registration in a refugee camp near the border has more than quadrupled since February. And groups that track down civilian casualties at the hands of security forces say the death toll has risen.

Russian mercenaries land in West Africa, pushing Putin’s targets as Kremlin grows increasingly isolated

Wagner works with confidentiality, masking his activities with an evolving network of shell companies that often evade official paperwork. But documents and imagery reviewed by The Post, some of which have not been previously reported, indicate a higher Russian presence in Mali.

Satellite photographs depict the construction of a military base outside the airport in Bamako, the capital of Mali, from April 2021 to February 2022. (Video: Google Earth / Maxer)

Satellite photographs depict the construction of a military base outside the capital, Bamako, which Western officials say was used by Wagner operatives. Flight records show that Russian Air Force jets are making unannounced trips to and from the city. Drone video and surveillance photos were captured by French authorities and reviewed by post. Show white men in uniform with Malian forces.

The Malian government has denied hiring Wagner, saying it only works with Russian military trainers. But Russian officials have publicly opposed the claim, calling the operatives “private” contractors. The line is unclear, experts say, and many Wagner agents have Russian military experience.

The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment. Asked by the Post about the expansion of Wagner’s footprint in Mali in March, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “We have nothing to do with the activities of private military agencies abroad.”

The Malian government and army did not respond to messages or calls for comment.

Since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine in 2014, it has poisoned relations with the West, forcing it to form alliances elsewhere. Putin has focused on African countries, where the movement to sever ties with former colonists, such as France, was gaining momentum – especially in Mali, a country of 21 million. Despite nine years of international military intervention led by Paris, extremists now dominate two-thirds of the territory.

Bamako has returned to Moscow after French President Emmanuel Macron announced last year that Paris planned to withdraw thousands of troops. Relations with France broke down. Malian officials expelled the French ambassador and told all French troops to leave “without delay”.

Shortly afterwards, white strangers appeared in military exhaustion, the man who described the reading of the corpse said.

The Post is hiding the names of the witnesses for fear of retaliation from the Malian government.

The man is a musician from the town of Maura, once a sleeping community of farmers and pastoralists. Peace was broken in 2012 when al-Qaeda militants invaded the country They settled in Maura seven years ago, giving residents an ultimatum: support us, leave nothing or die. Many have chosen to live in the city of about 10,000 and follow the uncomfortable new rules.

“The jihadists have dressed everyone like them and forced them to grow beards like them,” the musician said. “For men, it’s hard to tell us apart. You are not a jihadist, but you look like a jihadist. “

Insecurity has fueled a wave of civil unrest in Mali, with military officials seeking to oust two presidents over the past two years. New military leaders have promised to help stop the bloodshed.

Satellite images show that construction of a new military base near Mali’s main airport began in August, a month before news broke that leaders were negotiating a deal with Wagner. Tenants sleep in the barracks and run a logistics hub, according to Western officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

At least six Russian military planes have crashed in Bamako this year. According to flight data provided by Flightradar24 and a cellphone video posted on the Telegram, the three were undeclared by the Malian military. On the way to Mali, some appeared to stop in Syria and Libya, countries where Wagner is known for his work.

Surveillance photos and drone videos captured by the French armed forces last month and shared with the video show military officials describing Russian mercenaries in a formerly occupied Malian base as French mercenaries. A white skull patch, a symbol embraced by Wagner, visible in a vest.

Unprecedented genocide

Mali’s relations with Moscow have proved popular in Bamako, thanks to a sophisticated propaganda campaign linked to the Kremlin. The rally features regular Russian flags and Wagner celebrations.

Outside the capital, though, the excitement fades into fear.

“I am afraid of extremists,” a cattle seller in Maura told The Post. “I am terrified of the Malian army and these white soldiers. It’s not safe anywhere. “

Malian soldiers and their Russian allies killed at least 456 civilians between January and mid-April, the ACLED estimates, marking a sharp year-on-year increase in the number of deaths blamed on security forces.

“The Russians are making Mali less secure,” said a Malian conflict researcher at the center of the uprising, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the government had arrested critics. “They can loot and massacre people without consequences.”

A UN team accused of investigating human rights abuses in Mali has been trying to reach areas where extrajudicial killings have been reported since February, but the government has repeatedly blocked them. Security forces briefly detained UN investigators trying to interview eyewitnesses in Maura in late April. Witnesses were sent to prison, according to two people with knowledge of the incident, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared government retaliation.

The largest massacre was in Maura, where 300 people were killed in a four-day operation in late March, a Human Rights Watch investigation found.

“I have documented atrocities on all sides in Mali for more than a decade, and while armed Islamists have massacred hundreds of people, this is the worst single atrocity by any group,” said author Karin Dufka.

The post interviewed three Maura people, a musician and two cattle sellers who said they had witnessed the massacre. All three left the city and went into hiding. Their accounts paint a picture of a brutal operation that leaves no room for due process.

The violence began when five helicopters arrived on the morning of March 27. A peacock landed at every corner, and flew into the air equipped with an artillery.

Immediately, people started running – a mixture of extremists and civilians. The security forces shot at everyone.

About one-fifth of the commandos were white, eyewitnesses estimated. They all appear to be wearing the same uniforms, and have acted as interpreters for the Malian soldiers. Whites were shouting at each other in foreign languages.

“If I hear French, I know it’s French,” said the musician, who speaks the local dialect but watches television in Mali, the official language of Mali. “I didn’t recognize the language.”

Security forces dispersed across Maura, breaking into houses and dragging people away. They leave women and children alone.

The musician said he tried to stay calm and show his papers to intruders. He knew men in the area who had been mistaken for extremists and killed over the years.

“Jihadis live among us,” said the musician. “We have no choice. There is no government presence in this village. There is no law. The jihadists knew that. It is easy for them to control.”

A Malian soldier scans his documents and tells him to sit on the ground outside his house. He has seen some of his neighbors tied up and dragged away. Many stayed out for four days, under the scorching sun. Security forces went around confiscating the phone, the musician said, preventing people from recording the scene.

Listen to the musician’s shots and screams. Then he saw smoke: security forces burning corpses.

One victim was his 46-year-old brother, a herdsman.

He said the bodies could not be identified. “All we had was ashes.”

Eyewitnesses say no one knows how many were killed, but they estimate it is about 600, more than double the number of Human Rights Watch. Half are civilians, they said.

Security forces told residents they would not cooperate with the extremists or they would return. The Malian Defense Ministry later announced that troops had killed 203 “terrorists”. The army’s brass visited Maura on April 10 and announced that the city had been “liberated from the yoke of terrorists.”

However, eyewitnesses said that Maura is no more. When attention is diverted, extremists accuse residents of working with the military and order them to leave. “There’s no one left in Maura,” said the musician.

Satellite images taken in late April and throughout May seem to confirm his account: there are no structures left at the bottom of the Maura River, and the figures for the city square are gone.

Report from Paquette Dakar, Senegal. Lee reports from Washington. Swain reports from New York.

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