The year 2019 was the worst year for civilians in Mali since a coalition of Islamists and local separatist tribesmen took control over much of its northern half in 2012, said Human Rights Watch in a newly released report.
Islamist extremists have 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, the report said.
The 90-page report by the global campaigners describes how different armed groups in Mali burned villagers alive, killed with indiscriminate bombing, and pulled men off buses to execute them by the roadside, in scores of attacks on civilians.
It pointed to Islamist extremists as the perpetrator for some of the worst attacks, deliberately targeting small children.
“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 has 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.
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.
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.
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. (Source: The Guardian)