UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The top U.N. envoy in Mali demanded Thursday that the country's military leaders allow U.N. peacekeepers to visit a town where Human Rights Watch says the Malian army and foreign soldiers suspected to be Russian recently killed an estimated 300 men, one of several alleged rights abuses denounced by the U.S., Britain and France.
According to Human Rights Watch, the killings in Moura were the worst single atrocity reported in Mali's 10-year armed conflict against Islamic extremists. Britain and France alleged that Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group were involved.
U.N. special representative El-Ghassim Wane told the U.N. Security Council that the government asserted in an April 1 communique that "it had neutralized scores of terrorist elements" in the Moura area in central Mali south of Mopti.
But he said the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA received reports "of serious human rights abuses committed against large numbers of civilians during this operation." It sought access to the area which has so far been denied, except for a reconnaissance flight on April 3, he said.
France's U.N. Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere cited reports of human rights violations in Moura by elements of the Malian armed forces "accompanied by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group" that could constitute war crimes. He called for national and international investigations to be opened quickly and for MINUSMA to conduct its own unhindered investigation to establish the facts and report to the Security Council.
Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali's northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies. Insecurity has worsened with attacks on civilians and U.N. peacekeepers.
In August 2020, Malian President Boubacar Ibrahim Keita, who died in January, was overthrown in a coup that included Assimi Goita, then an army colonel. Last June, Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government after carrying out his second coup in nine months and later in the year it reportedly decided to allow the deployment of the Wagner group.
The killings in Moura are part of a spike in violence in recent months by extremists linked to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and by Malian government security forces. Extremists have also killed scores of Malian security force personnel since the beginning of 2022.
U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills said the first three month of the year have been marked by "alarming accounts of human rights abuses" against civilians by terrorist groups and Malian armed forces "with individuals linked to the Kremlin-backed Wagner group," and he demanded investigations so those responsible can be held accountable.
Mills noted that Malian authorities have announced an investigation into events in Moura during the week of March 28, and urged the government to also grant immediate access to MINUSMA. He also called for an investigation into the March 2 "execution-style killing of over 35 people" in the Segou region in central Mali.
"This increase in reports of human rights abuses is exactly why the United States continues to warn countries against partnering with the Kremlin-linked Wagner group," Mills said. "Wagner forces have been implicated in human rights abuses, including execution-style killings, in the Central African Republic and elsewhere."
Britain's deputy U.N. ambassador James Kariuki told the council "the United Kingdom is horrified by a surge of human rights abuses since the deployment of the Wagner group to Mali," and by the killings during the army''s counterterrorism operation in Moura "with the alleged involvement of the Wagner Group."
He said the latest reports from Moura "underline the extent of Russia's malign activity which is damaging efforts to address peace and security beyond Ukraine," and demanded that MINUSMA carry out its human rights mandate and investigate all allegations.
"We know that, as of early 2022, around 1,000 Russian mercenary personnel have been stationed across Mali," Kariuki said. "Just as the presence of Russian mercenaries drove an increase in human rights violations and abuses in the Central African Republic last year, we fear we are now seeing the same in Mali."
Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador Anna Evstigneeva countered that Russia has a long history of cooperation with Mali and is working to improve the training and capabilities of its military and law enforcement. Currently, she said, 200 servicemen and nine police officers are being trained in Russia.
"As for the information campaign about so-called Russian mercenaries, we regard it as part of a malevolent geopolitical game," Evstigneeva said.
Wane, the U.N. envoy, painted a grim picture of the last three months, not only on the security front but telling the Security Council there was "no tangible progress" in the peace process.
The regional group ECOWAS imposed tougher economic sanctions on Mali in response to the military's failure to make progress toward elections.
Wane said that at an ECOWAS summit on March 25 in Accra, Ghana that included the African Union and MINUSMA Mali's military requested an additional 24 months to end the transition due to the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation. "
But this was deemed to still be too long" and the summit endorsed 12 to 18 months as a basis for negotiation, he said.