BAMAKO, Mali — On the last Sunday in March before Ramadan, thousands of merchants and villagers filled the market of Moura, in central Mali, trading cattle in a vast pen and stocking up on spices and vegetables in the town’s sandy alleys.
Suddenly, five low-flying helicopters thrummed overhead, some firing weapons and drawing gunfire in return. Villagers ran for their lives. But there was nowhere to escape: The helicopters were dropping soldiers on the town’s outskirts to block all the exits.
The soldiers were in pursuit of Islamist militants who have been operating in the region for years. Many of the soldiers were Malians, but they were accompanied by white foreigners wearing military fatigues and speaking a language that was neither English nor French, locals said.
The foreigners, according to diplomats, officials and human rights groups, belonged to the Russian paramilitary group known as Wagner.
Over the next five days in Moura, Malian soldiers and their Russian allies looted houses, held villagers captive in a dried-out riverbed and executed hundreds of men, according to eight witnesses from Moura and more than 20 Malian politicians and civil society activists, as well as Western military officials and diplomats.
Both Malian soldiers and foreign mercenaries killed captives at close range, often without interrogating them, based on their ethnicity or clothes, according to witnesses. The foreigners marauded through the town, indiscriminately killing people in houses, stealing jewelry and confiscating cellphones to eliminate any visual evidence.
However, using satellite imagery, The New York Times identified the sites of at least two mass graves, which matched the witnesses’ descriptions of where captives were executed and buried.
The Malian authorities and military did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Mali has been fighting armed militants for the past decade, initially with the help of French and later European forces. But as the relationship has deteriorated between France and the Malian military junta, which seized power last year, French forces are withdrawing from Mali, and the Wagner Group has moved in — a step denounced by 15 European countries and Canada, as well as the United States.
The Wagner Group refers to a network of operatives and companies that serve as what the U.S. Treasury Department has called a “proxy force” of Russia’s ministry of defense. Analysts describe the group as an extension of Russia’s foreign policy through deniable activities, including the use of mercenaries and disinformation campaigns.
Since it appeared in Ukraine in 2014, its operatives have been identified working in Libya, Syria and countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Sudan, and now Mali. They ally with embattled political and military leaders who can pay for their services in cash, or with lucrative mining concessions for precious minerals like gold, diamonds and uranium, according to interviews conducted in recent weeks with dozens of analysts, diplomats and military officials in Africa and Western countries.
The Malian authorities hailed the Moura attack as a major victory in their fight against extremist groups, claiming to have killed 203 fighters and arrested more than 50 others, but making no mention of civilian casualties. They have denied the presence of Wagner operatives, saying only that they have a contract with Russia to provide “instructors.”
However, Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov said in May on Italian television that Wagner was present in Mali “on a commercial basis,” providing “security services.”
Witnesses and analysts say the death toll in Moura was between 300 and 400 by their most conservative estimates, with most of the victims civilians.
“From Monday to Thursday, the killings didn’t stop,” said Hamadoun, a tailor working near the market when the helicopters arrived. “The whites and the Malians killed together.”
Bara, a cattle trader from Moura, said, “They terminated all the youth of this area.”
The witnesses, fearing retribution, spoke to The Times on condition that they be identified only by their first names. They were interviewed after fleeing Moura and taking refuge elsewhere in Mali.
The death toll in Moura is the highest in a growing list of human rights abuses committed by the Malian military, which diplomats and Malian human rights observers say have increased since the military began conducting joint operations with the Wagner Group in January.
In central Mali, nearly 500 civilians have been killed in the joint operations, including in Moura, according to confidential reports from the U.N. mission in Mali seen by The Times and a database compiled by Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data project, or ACLED. Some abuses could amount to crimes against humanity, the U.N. said in one report.
On Monday, the U.N. mission said human rights violations committed by the Malian military against civilians had increased tenfold between the end of 2021 and the first quarter of this year. In Moura, the security forces “may have also raped, looted, arrested and arbitrarily detained many civilians,” according to the mission, which is preparing a report on the incident.
Militaries in the Sahel, the vast sub-Saharan region that cuts across Africa, have long been accused of killing their own people — including after training by Western instructors. But the particular human rights violations in Mali fit a pattern of abuses — including torture, beatings and summary executions — reported in other countries where Wagner mercenaries have been deployed.
The Wagner Group is believed to be led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. In a written response to questions sent by The Times, Mr. Prigozhin praised Mali’s current leader, its military and its actions in Moura. But he denied the presence of Wagner contractors in Mali, calling it “a legend” that the group even exists.
He added, “Wherever there are Russian contractors, real or fictional, they never violate human rights.”
In December, the European Union imposed sanctions on eight people, though not Mr. Prigozhin, connected to the group, accusing it of looting natural resources, fueling violence and violating international law.
In Mali, about 1,000 Wagner mercenaries have been deployed to at least 15 military bases, security outposts and checkpoints, including former French bases and facilities funded by the European Union, according to a French military official and a senior diplomat based in Mali.
Sorcha MacLeod, chair of the U.N. working group on the use of mercenaries, said human rights abuses and war crimes increased wherever mercenaries were deployed. “They have no incentive to end the conflict, because they are financially motivated,” she said.
A Slow-Motion Massacre
A hard-to-reach town of mud brick buildings in the floodplain of the Inner Niger Delta, Moura is known for its “galbal,” or livestock market, which draws thousands of buyers and merchants every Sunday.
The region is home to many herders and farmers of the Fulani ethnic group, who are prime recruits for the militants, and often, victims of the violence too.
Since 2015, the Katibat Macina, a local affiliate of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, has had a grip on the area, collecting taxes and forcing men to grow their beards.
“They are the government in the region,” said Hamadou, a herder who was held by the soldiers.
On the day of the attack, armed Islamist militants were roaming Moura, their motorcycles parked nearby. When the helicopters approached the town, some villagers climbed on the roofs their houses to see what was happening. Some militants tried to flee on motorcycles, while others fired at the helicopters.
Malian soldiers rounded up captives and held them under guard at two sites: an area southwest of the town, not far from the galbal, and a dried riverbed east of the town, the villagers said in interviews.
The mass executions began on the Monday, and the victims were both civilians and unarmed militants, witnesses said. Soldiers picked out up to 15 people at a time, inspected their fingers and shoulders for the imprint left by regular use of weapons, and executed men yards away from captives.
Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries chased people in the streets and broke into houses. “The white soldiers were killing anyone trying to flee,” said Bara, the cattle trader, who was taken to the riverbed.
On Tuesday, Malian soldiers used the mosque’s loudspeakers to order everyone still hiding in houses to get out. Russian mercenaries made sure they did.
Modi, a 24-year-old resident, said two white men with guns shot through the door of his house, narrowly missing him. He ran to the riverbed, hoping he would be safer with the Malian soldiers.
When Hamadou, the herder, left his house on Tuesday, he said he discovered “cadavers everywhere.”
With the stench becoming unbearable, soldiers ordered those who had wheeled carts to collect bodies, and others to collect dry grass. The soldiers doused some of the bodies with fuel and set them on fire, in full view of the captives.
More interrogations followed on Wednesday, which women and children were ordered to witness. Soldiers pushed captives wearing the short pants or boots that could affiliate them with militants to walk around a house which they said contained a machine that could identify jihadists, eyewitnesses said, noting that this was likely a bluff. The soldiers executed a few men, and forced others into helicopters.
The soldiers and their Russian allies left on Thursday, after killing six last prisoners in retaliation for four who had escaped. A Malian soldier told a group of captives that the soldiers had killed “all the bad people,” said Hamadou.
The soldier apologized for the good people who “died by accident.”
All of the victims were Fulani, according to the survivors and testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch. Corinne Dukfa, the group’s Sahel director, said this would likely push more Fulani into the arms of Islamist groups.
Deadly Joint Operations
Since the military began conducting joint operations with Wagner mercenaries, “the distinction between civilians and fighters” — already barely respected — has “completely disappeared,” said Ousmane Diallo, a West Africa researcher with Amnesty International.
In early March, 30 charred bodies were discovered near the military base of Diabaly, where Malian soldiers and Wagner operatives have been deployed, weeks after a similarly sized group of men was abducted, according to U.N. peacekeepers in Mali and the French military.
In early April, Malian security forces and Russian mercenaries executed seven young children near the town of Bandiagara, according to the French military. In mid-April, the Malian military said it killed 18 Islamist militants and rounded up hundreds of others at a livestock market in the town of Hombori. But among those injured and taken to a clinic were older people, women and children, according to witnesses. At least one of those killed was also a civilian.
Investigators from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali have so far been denied access to Moura. Russia and China blocked a vote at the U.N. Security Council on an independent investigation.
Some Malians in these regions are losing trust in the government.
“We thought the white soldiers would free us from jihadists, but they are more dangerous,” said Oumar, who said his brother was among the 18 victims in Hombori. “At least jihadists don’t fire at anyone moving.”
Ten days after the siege ended, two government ministers brought food and donations to Moura, claiming that the army had brought peace and security. On Malian television, local officials praised the military operation.
Soon after, the militants returned and kidnapped the deputy mayor. He hasn’t been heard from since.
As villagers were at worship one evening in late April, said Bara, the trader, three militants arrived and announced that anyone who valued their lives should leave the village before 6 a.m. the next day. It has since emptied out.
“We had a home,” Bara said, “but we’re now strangers in our own country.”
Elian Peltier reported from Bamako, Mali; Mady Camara from Dakar, Senegal; and Christiaan Triebert from New York. Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.