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Civilian deaths escalate as violence builds in Sahel

Human Rights Watch report describes mounting violence in the region from armed militias and Islamist extremists.

Senegalese soldiers in Gao, Mali, on a UN mission, patrolling after a suicide bomb attack on a peace-keeping base in July 2019. Photograph: Souleymane Ag Anara/AFP via Getty Images

Armed militias and Islamist extremists in Mali killed at least 500 civilians and wounded many more last year in an intensifying wave of violence that threatens to undermine efforts to stabilise the poor west African state, a new report has found.

The 90-page survey by global campaigners Human Rights Watch describes how a multitude of different armed groups in Mali burned villagers alive, killed others with bombs, and pulled men off buses to execute them by the roadside, in scores of attacks on civilians.

Islamist extremists were responsible for some of the worst attacks, deliberately targeting small children, and killing 17 people at a funeral by hiding a bomb on the remains of a disabled man killed in an earlier attack.

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Human Rights Watch said 2019 was the worst for civilian casualties in Mali since a coalition of Islamists and local separatist tribesmen took control over much of its northern half in 2012, prompting a French military intervention and a $1bn-a-year peace-keeping operation that has so far failed to stabilise the country.

“Armed groups are killing, maiming, and terrorising communities throughout central Mali with no apparent fear of being held to account … The human toll in shattered lives is mounting as the deadly cycles of violence and revenge continue,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

There are widespread fears that the failure to quell the violence in Mali will tip the entire Sahel into violent chaos that will strengthen extremist groups and send more people fleeing to Europe. The number of attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016, United Nations figures have revealed.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the UN’s envoy for the fragile region on the southern rim of the Sahara, said the Sahel had experienced “a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets”.

Violence in central Mali has escalated steadily in recent years as armed Islamist groups allied to al-Qaida began moving from the north. Many of the bloodiest attacks last year were attributed to an Isis affiliate, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

In November, two attacks by ISGS on military bases in Mali, at Tabankort and Indelimane, claimed the lives of 92 soldiers. In December, the group said it had killed 42 people – 35 of them civilians – in Arbinda in Burkina Faso. More than 170 soldiers have died in two recent ISGS attacks in Niger.

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Both al-Qaida and Isis have sought to exploit ethnic tensions in the Sahel, where competition between communities has been exacerbated by climate change and demographic pressure on scant resources.

Armed Islamists have recruited fighters from pastoralist Fulani communities, leading others to form self-defence groups. Malian authorities have vowed to disarm the militias but have struggled to do so. Weapons are not difficult to obtain in the region, and criminal networks overlap with the armed groups.

Fulani militia in Sevare, Mali, at an informal demobilisation camp intended to reduce jihadism. Photograph: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Atrocities by armed Islamists include the killing of at least 38 civilians in simultaneous attacks on the villages of Yoro and Gangafani villages in June. A witness told the Human Rights Watch report’s authors that Islamist extremists dragged a four year old from a house during the massacre and shot his father in the head.

Human Rights Watch believes the total number of civilians killed in communal and armed Islamist attacks in 2019 is much higher than those documented. Most attacks go unreported.


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The Malian government promised to bring those responsible for the worst atrocities to justice. In 2019, Malian courts opened several investigations and convicted about 45 people for smaller incidents of communal violence.

However, judicial authorities have yet to pursue the powerful armed group leaders believed responsible for numerous recent attacks. Many villagers said the lack of accountability was emboldening armed groups to commit further abuses.

“The government, with the help of its international partners, needs to do much more to prosecute those responsible for crimes and dismantle abusive armed groups,” said Dufka.

The rise in violence comes amid reports that the US is likely to reduce its military presence in the Sahel, as it refocuses on great power rivals as a more significant threat than terrorism.

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The US currently has thousands of troops in the region and recently opened a major $100m air base in Niger.

The prospect of many of its forces withdrawing from the region has dismayed many actors. A small detachment of British troops is due to deploy later this year to Mali as part of the UN peacekeeping force there.

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