UN outlines five days of horror in Mali's Moura
A damning report released Friday by the United Nations on a March 2022 incident in Moura, central Mali, describes five days of horror during which at least 500 people were allegedly executed by Malian and "foreign" soldiers.
Testimonies gathered by UN investigators suggest most were killed at gunpoint.
Their bodies were thrown into several mass graves which the military had ordered local residents to dig, according to the report.
"Those who resisted or tried to flee were systematically executed by both the white soldiers and the FAMa (Malian Armed Forces) and dragged into the pit," said one resident quoted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
"The executions went on all day -- it was unbearable", he added.
Malian authorities did not allow UN investigators to access Moura apart from one initial flyover.
Instead, the report draws from 157 individual interviews with victims, residents and aid workers as well as 11 group interviews. The investigation lasted seven months.
Information is very difficult to obtain in the area, which is remote and dangerous to access. Telecommunications are poor and there are frequent military operations in the area.
The nationality of the white foreigners is not explicitly identified in the report. Mali has brought in Russian operatives that western countries and others say are Wagner mercenaries.
The report said some civilians were afraid of speaking out due to reprisals and strong political pressure.
Some sources were arrested by Malian services during their interviews with human rights officers, and others were ordered not to cooperate with the investigation, it said.
Ten days after the events, jihadists returned and abducted at least 10 people accused of cooperating with the Malian army who have since gone missing, the report said.
The only visual evidence of what happened is aerial photographs showing piles of burnt-out motorbikes.
But the UN account corroborates information gathered by various NGOs, which runs counter to the narrative of the ruling junta.
- Three-hour assault -
In the late morning of March 2022, a livestock fair was in full swing in Moura, a rural town on the banks of a tributary of the Niger River.
Thousands of civilians had come to buy supplies in preparation for Ramadan.
The area has been known for years as a stronghold of Katiba Macina, a group affiliated with the Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
About 30 jihadists were reportedly in the crowd.
At around 11:00 am (1100 GMT), five helicopters appeared in the sky. One of them reportedly opened fire "indiscriminately" in the direction of the market, and the jihadists returned fire.
About 100 men emerged from four of the landed helicopters.
Among them were Malian soldiers, but also white men in fatigues speaking an "unknown" language, according to witness testimony cited in the report -- indicating they were not speaking French, which is Mali's official language, or English.
The assault on the town lasted three hours, the UN said, killing 30 people including a dozen jihadists.
After seizing control, the Malian soldiers and white allies arrested at least 3,000 people, including men of all ages.
"The majority of the people executed were identified as terrorists... on the observation of apparent signs such as having a long beard, trousers that do not reach the ankle, marks on the shoulders supposedly from carrying a weapon, or even the fact that they showed fear", the report said.
- 'Beep of death' -
According to several sources, the military used a machine it claimed would detect "terrorists".
It made each man, including the village chief, pass through the machine and each time that it beeped, there was a death sentence.
The military swept the town and continued to make arrests between March 27 and 31.
At least 58 people were arrested, some of whom were tortured and ill-treated, according to the UN. It said 47 of them are now free.
"The soldiers slapped us, punched us, stomped on us, kicked us in the head, beat us with cords and with the butts of their weapons", said one man who was arrested, according to the report.
"They called us jihadists, accused us of killing our own brothers and destroying our country -- I told them that I knew nothing about all that and that I am not a jihadist", he added.
The report also said 58 women and girls were raped or made victims of other forms of sexual violence.