The siege began a week ago, when the village of Mourrah was surrounded by a combined force of soldiers from the Malian army and the Russian mercenary company Wagner Group.
The village in central Mali had a reputation as a centre for Islamist insurgents. But it was also filled with farmers and other ordinary people arriving for a market day to buy and sell cattle and sheep.
Over the following days, the siege tightened, the exits from the village were blocked and the killings began, according to reports from human-rights groups, independent analysts and citizen organizations. There were gun battles, house-to-house searches and air strikes from helicopters. By the end of the week, hundreds of people were dead, including many villagers and other unarmed people.
Some reports, including from local citizen groups, suggest that as many as 300 to 500 villagers were massacred by the Malian and Russian forces. It is believed to be the biggest death toll so far in an escalating campaign of attacks that began when the Kremlin-backed Wagner military contractors arrived in Mali this year.
United Nations observers and human-rights groups had already reported allegations of Russian mercenary involvement in several civilian killings in Mali in recent weeks.
The Wagner forces, while officially private, are a key element in Moscow’s global strategy. Thousands of Wagner troops have been deployed around the world, including in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique and Central African Republic, and Wagner troops were recently reported to have arrived in Ukraine to support the Russian invasion.
Mali’s army has now confirmed the bloodshed in Mourrah. It issued a statement on Friday in which it said 203 people were killed in the village, but it described the dead as solely Islamist militants – a claim that many analysts find implausible. The absence of any reported casualties on the Malian army side is also seen as evidence that the killings were a massacre.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price, in a statement on Sunday, said the accounts from Mourrah were “extremely disturbing.” He noted the reports of “large numbers” of deaths, including civilians, and the involvement of the Wagner forces.
He said the deaths in Mourrah should be the focus of a “rigorous investigation” by the UN peacekeeping force in Mali, which has not yet been permitted to visit the site of the alleged massacre.
Failure to investigate the deaths will “drive communities into the hands of violent extremist groups and create conditions for more violence,” Mr. Price said.
The UN peacekeeping force, in a statement on Saturday, said it was “very concerned” about the alleged violence against civilians in Mourrah. It said it was consulting Malian authorities to establish what happened.
Mali’s military junta, which seized power in a coup in 2020, has prohibited the UN peacekeepers from flying to conflict sites without advance permission, making it increasingly difficult for them to monitor or prevent potential attacks on civilians.
Some analysts say the Malian military seems to be targeting civilians who are seen as “complicit” in the presence of Islamist militias in their villages.
Human-rights groups and independent analysts have confirmed that Islamist militants were in the village when the siege began, and some fighting occurred. But over a period of several days, most of the victims of extrajudicial killings were unarmed people, according to Corinne Dufka, the West Africa director of Human Rights Watch, who spoke to The Globe and Mail on the weekend.
The number of reported victims in Mourrah was “staggering,” she said in a separate tweet.
PINAL, a citizen organization representing the Fulani ethnic group in Mali, said the village’s residents had buried 332 bodies last week, and the total number of deaths may have exceeded 500.
“There are strong indications that a large-scale massacre has happened and that it was perpetrated by Malian forces and Wagner troops,” said Yvan Guichaoua, a Sahel region expert at the Brussels School of International Studies at the University of Kent.
“This is absolutely shocking and horrifying,” he told The Globe. “This is happening on a weekly basis: allegations of killings by the Malian army and the Wagner Group, and systematic dismissal of such reports by the authorities.”
Beginning last Sunday, social-media reports had described the siege of Mourrah village and had warned of potential violence, yet the UN peacekeepers seemed to do nothing, Mr. Guichaoua said. It is “disastrous” when a peacekeeping force with about 15,000 personnel is powerless to stop attacks on civilians, he said.
Mali’s military junta began deploying hundreds of Wagner Group soldiers last December, despite strong criticism from Western governments, and by January there were a reported 1,000 Russian mercenaries in the country, officially described as “instructors.” They replaced French troops that were withdrawn from the country this year after a dispute between the military regime and the French government.
“Malian forces in joint operations with Russians have intensified since the beginning of 2022,” said Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank.
“While this tragic event in Mourrah attracted attention because of the high number of casualties, there have been sporadic similar atrocities at a smaller scale throughout central Mali,” he told The Globe.
In a report last month, Human Rights Watch published eyewitness accounts of the torture and killing of civilians by Malian soldiers working with “white soldiers” who spoke a language that was not French. Although the witnesses could not identify them, the soldiers were believed to be Wagner Group mercenaries.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.