Washington, DC – The United States has imposed sanctions against Mali’s defence minister and two military officials, accusing the trio of helping to facilitate the Russian mercenary group Wagner’s rise in the West African nation.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Monday that the sanctions targeted Malian Defence Minister Colonel Sadio Camara, Air Force Chief of Staff Colonel Alou Boi Diarra and Deputy Chief of Staff Lieutenant Colonel Adama Bagayoko.
Blinken accused the trio of working to “facilitate and expand Wagner’s presence in Mali since December 2021”, adding that civilian fatalities had surged by 278 percent since the Russian mercenaries deployed to the country.
“Many of those deaths were the result of operations conducted by the Malian Armed Forces alongside members of the Wagner Group,” Blinken said.
In a separate statement, US Treasury Department official Brian Nelson also said the Malian officials had been “instrumental in facilitating the Wagner Group’s entrenchment in Mali over the past two years”.
“These officials have made their people vulnerable to the Wagner Group’s destabilizing activities and human rights abuses while paving the way for the exploitation of their country’s sovereign resources to the benefit of the Wagner Group’s operations in Ukraine,” Nelson said.
For years, the US and its allies have targeted the Wagner Group and those who support it with sanctions. Last week, the United Kingdom, for example, sanctioned 13 individuals with links to the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan.
That pressure increased in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in which Wagner mercenaries have played a large role. In January, Washington designated Wagner as a “transnational criminal organisation”.
More recently, in May, the US also sanctioned Ivan Aleksandrovich Maslov, who the Treasury Department identified as Wagner’s “principal administrator” in Mali.
US officials have long accused the firm founded by Russian citizen Yevgeny Prigozhin of advancing Russian interests through security agreements and disinformation campaigns across Africa.
Malian officials increasingly turned to Wagner following a military-led coup in May 2021, which saw military officer Assimi Goita seize power.
We’re imposing sanctions on three Malian officials who have coordinated with the Wagner Group to facilitate and expand Wagner’s presence in Mali. Civilian fatalities have surged more than threefold since Wagner forces deployed to Mali in December 2021.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) July 24, 2023
The pivot coincided with increased calls for French troops, who had first deployed to northern Mali in 2013 in response to a separatist movement, to leave the country. France’s military completed its withdrawal in August of last year.
Mali’s transitional government did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Reuters news agency on Monday’s US sanctions.
In addition to its sanctions push, Washington has accused Wagner of helping to engineer the departure of the 13,000-person-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA.
In June, per the request of Bamako, the UN Security Council voted to end the decade-long mission, which had increasingly become the subject of tensions but was seen as essential to preventing an all-out security vacuum in Mali’s sprawling central region bordering Niger and Burkina Faso.
MINUSMA is expected to completely cease operations by the end of the year.
The tri-border area has seen increasing violence in recent years as ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-linked groups have jockeyed for influence and rights groups have accused Wagner of being linked to recent abuses.
In January, UN experts called for an investigation into “gross human rights abuses and possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Mali by government forces” and Wagner mercenaries since 2021.
The reported abuses included the killing of more than 500 people, “the vast majority summarily executed”, by government forces and “foreign military personnel” in the village of Moura in the central Mopti region in March 2022, according to a May report from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Messages obtained by The Guardian newspaper had previously linked the operation to Wagner, though Malian officials rejected the report as “fictitious”.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch accused government forces and fighters believed to belong to the Wagner Group of summarily executing or forcibly disappearing “several dozen civilians in Mali’s central region since December 2022”.