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Malian soldiers are pictured during a patrol with soldiers from the Takuba force near Niger border in Dansongo Circle, Mali on Aug. 23, 2021.PAUL LORGERIE/Reuters

Nearly four weeks after a reported massacre of hundreds of civilians by Malian soldiers and Russian mercenaries, United Nations investigators have still not been permitted to visit the site.

An estimated 300 to 500 people were killed in the massacre in the village of Mourrah in central Mali. Human-rights researchers have called it the worst atrocity of the armed conflict that began a decade ago in northern Mali and has expanded into the centre of the country.

Journalists have been barred from the village, but many reports have filtered out from social media and independent researchers. They described how the village was sealed off on March 27 by troops from the Malian military and Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor with close Kremlin connections that has provided thousands of soldiers to several African governments.

Over a period of several days, the troops executed hundreds of people – mostly unarmed civilians, although some were Islamist militants who have been involved in Mali’s insurgency, according to the local and international reports.

One witness, a market trader, told Human Rights Watch researchers that he saw 19 men executed by white soldiers he believes were Russian. One group of Russians pointed at three men, including two of his brothers, he said. “I thought they were going for interrogation. They took them several metres away and executed them, point blank.”

The Malian military has said that it killed 203 militants and arrested 51 in the village. It did not acknowledge any civilian casualties.

“We are extremely concerned that Malian authorities have still not granted UN human-rights investigators access to the village of Mourrah,” said Seif Magango, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office, in a statement on Wednesday.

The death toll could be as high as 500, although the estimate is unconfirmed, Mr. Magango said. “Preliminary information suggests that the majority of victims were civilians,” he said.

“In addition to the alleged summary executions, the defence forces also reportedly raped, looted, and arbitrarily arrested and detained numerous people during the military operation, among them many civilians.”

Investigators from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali have been seeking access to the village since April 1, he said. “An independent on-the-ground investigation is critical, and time is of the essence to ensure accountability and prompt, effective justice for victims.”

Alioune Tine, a UN-appointed independent expert on human rights in Mali, said this month that the reports from Mourrah suggest war crimes or crimes against humanity may have been committed.

Mali’s military junta, which took power in a coup in 2020, brought an estimated 1,000 Russian mercenaries into the country in December and January. It insists that Russians are only advisers to provide military training, but independent analysts and human-rights researchers have said the Russians are participating in military operations.

Western governments have criticized the Russian mercenary activity in Mali. The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said last week that Wagner Group was likely responsible for civilian deaths in Mourrah. He said the EU would suspend some of its training mission for the Malian military because of the risk of interference by the Russian military contractor.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said on April 5 that she was deeply concerned by reports that Wagner Group was implicated in the attack on Mourrah. The military contractor “is known to have close ties to the Russian leadership” and has often been accused of abuses and destabilizing activity in other parts of the world, she said.

“We are concerned that such violations against the Malian population will fuel terrorist recruitment efforts,” the Canadian minister said in a statement.

The Soufan Center, an independent U.S.-based research centre on global security issues, said the events in Mourrah were “eerily similar to Russian campaigns abroad.” The evidence suggests there could now be a Russian influence on counterterrorism strategy in Mali, it said.

“The Mourrah massacre is a glimpse of what could be a more regular occurrence as the Malian government consolidates its dependence on Russian mercenaries,” the Soufan Centre said in a report last week.

At the UN Security Council this month, France requested an independent investigation into the reported massacre at Mourrah, but Russia and China blocked the request, according to Agence France-Presse, a French news agency.

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