Mali’s biggest jihadist coalition says it has captured a Russian fighter with Wagner, the Kremlin-linked security firm allegedly hired by the country’s military junta.
The claim was made in a statement sent to AFP late Sunday by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), although it provided no evidence to support the assertion.
“In the first week of April, [we] captured a soldier of the Russian Wagner forces in the Segou region in central Mali,” the GSIM said.
The group said the Russians had taken part in a massacre in Moura, central Mali, last month – an event whose outlines have been reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“These murderous forces participated with the Malian army in an airdrop operation on a market in the village of Moura, where they confronted several mujahideen before encircling this locality for five days and killing hundreds of innocent civilians,” it said.
It is the first time the GSIM, an Al-Qaeda-linked alliance and the biggest jihadist network in the Sahel, has announced the capture of a Wagner operative.
In another operation, the GSIM statement said “the mercenaries” carried out two parachute drops at Bandiagara in central Mali.
Jihadist fighters seized weapons “from the mercenaries, who fled”, it said.
The United States, France and others say Mali has hired Wagner to help its armed forces, which are struggling to roll back a decade-long jihadist insurgency.
Mali’s military-dominated government says the Russians in the country are military instructors. It has also started receiving combat helicopters and radar from Russia.
HRW says Malian soldiers and white foreign soldiers, who did not speak French, executed 300 civilians in Moura between March 27-31.
Mali says it “neutralised” 203 jihadists in Moura. The UN says the Malian authorities are preventing its investigators from gaining access to the area.
Wagner has also been accused of abuses in the Central African Republic.
Vast swathes of Mali lie beyond government control due to the jihadist insurgency, which began in 2012 before spreading three years later to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
France, Mali’s former colonial power and traditional ally, intervened in 2013 and deployed a large force to support the Malian armed forces.
But in February, it decided to pull out its troops after falling out with the military junta, especially over its rapprochement with the Kremlin.
The Sahel country is led by a military junta that seized power in a coup in August 2020.
The junta initially promised to restore civilian rule, but it failed to meet an earlier commitment to West Africa bloc ECOWAS to stage elections in February this year, prompting regional sanctions.
Last week an army document and officials said a Russian national operating alongside Malian soldiers had been killed by a roadside bomb in the centre of the conflict-torn Sahel state.
The death marked the first confirmed Russian fatality in Mali.
On Monday, another IED killed five soldiers in the central region of Bandiagara-Bankass, according to a post on the army’s Twitter account.
African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat also condemned attacks on Sunday in which jihadists killed six soldiers in simultaneous raids on three army bases in central Mali.
The attacks were on bases located in urban areas, inflicting a deep shock to local people already suffering under Mali’s multiform crises, he said.
An army statement said a helicopter and two vehicles had also been damaged in the attacks.
According to a diplomatic document seen by AFP, almost all Malian military helicopters are currently being flown by Russians with Malian co-pilots.
Overall, the conflict in Mali has said to have led to thousands of military and civilian deaths and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.
Jihadist violence has spread from the north of the country to the centre and south, where conflict is also being inflamed by ethnic frictions and criminal gangs.