Over 500 civilians died in attacks carried out by armed forces and Islamist groups in Mali from January to March this year, the United Nations said in a report on Monday that detailed a rapid unravelling of an already desperate security situation.
The killings represented a 324% rise over the previous quarter and highlighted the failure of Mali's military junta to limit human rights abuses or stop groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State from carrying out campaigns of violence.
They come just as Mali cuts ties with former colonial power France and as Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, steps in to help defeat militants who have carried out attacks in the centre and north for nearly a decade.
Mali's military, which took power in a 2020 coup, did not respond to requests for comment. Wagner Group could not be reached.
"Malian Armed Forces, supported on certain occasions by foreign military elements, increased military operations to combat terrorism ... some of which sometimes ended in serious allegations of violations of human rights," the UN's Malian mission, known as MINUSMA, said in the report.
Malian soldiers are pictured during a patrol with soldiers from the new Takuba force near Niger border in Dansongo Circle, Mali August 23, 2021. REUTERS/Paul Lorgerie//File Photo
Western powers strongly opposed Wagner's intervention, warning that it could stoke violence in Mali and neighbouring countries where communities face growing levels of drought, malnutrition and poverty.
MINUSMA documented 320 human rights violations by the Malian military in the January-March period, compared with 31 in the previous three months.
The most notable case was in the town of Moura, where witnesses and rights groups say the Malian army accompanied by white fighters killed scores of civilians they suspected of being militants.
"In addition to summary executions, security forces also allegedly raped, looted, arrested and arbitrarily detained many civilians during the military operation," MINUSMA said.
MINUSMA is conducting an investigation but has been refused access to the town. MINUSMA said its request will only be considered once the government has conducted its own investigation.
Mali has been hit by violence since 2012 when jihadists took over the north. France beat them back, but by 2015 they had regrouped and unleashed a wave of attacks in the centre. They have since spread into Niger and Burkina Faso, raising concerns of regional instability.