DAKAR, Senegal — French, American and European officials have expressed serious concerns about allegations that hundreds of people were killed last week in a town in the West African nation of Mali by Malian soldiers accompanied by Russian mercenaries on a campaign to fight insurgents.
Although the accounts are still unclear, human rights organizations, security analysts and Malian civil society groups said that between 200 and 400 people had been killed in the town, Moura — and that government troops and Russian fighters might have been responsible.
Human Rights Watch described it as “the worst atrocity in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict.” Hundreds more were reportedly killed last month by Islamist insurgents, according to the group.
Mali’s armed forces have battled Islamist extremists and other violent groups for the past decade in the Sahel region, an arid strip of land just south of the Sahara, where hundreds of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced.
French forces fought for nine years alongside Malian forces in the West African nation, but France announced earlier this year that it was ending its counterterrorism operation, known as Barkhane, amid souring relations with the Malian military junta that seized power in a coup in May.
Western officials say that Malian security forces have since hired Russian mercenaries with the Wagner Group, a private military company, but both Malian and Russian officials deny that. However, French diplomatic and military sources, who could not be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, say that about 1,000 Russian mercenaries are now posted in Mali.
The reports of a massacre came from Moura, a town of about 10,000 people in the country’s central region, where government officials said dozens of insurgents had gathered. On Saturday, Malian officials said in a statement that they had killed 203 “fighters of terrorist armed groups” in Moura. The statement made no mention of civilian or military casualties.
But the West Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Corinne Dufka, who spoke to more than 15 town residents of the town, said that helicopters attacked Moura on March 27, a Sunday when hundreds of people had gathered for its weekly livestock market.
Ms. Dufka said that the Malian forces were supported by foreign soldiers who were identified by several sources as Russians. Malian forces and Russian mercenaries held the village under siege for four days, she said.
Soldiers opened fire on people in the market, said Ms. Dufka, and took some of them to an area outside Moura, where they detained them for four days while searching the town.
Several witnesses told Ms. Dufka that both Malian and foreign forces had executed many men. The bodies of some of them were later burned, she added.
Reached by phone, Colonel Souleymane Dembélé, the head of the Malian armed forces’ communication unit, said that he had “no reaction” to the allegations.
Ms. Dufka said that at the time of the attack jihadist fighters were present in the village, which is in an area that is a stronghold of an affiliate of Al Qaeda known as the Macina Liberation Front.
But she added, “Executing civilians and suspects in the name of security is as unlawful as it is counterproductive. It is driving recruitment into abusive groups, stoking intercommunal tension, and undermining trust in the state.”
France’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday that it was “gravely concerned” by reports of “massive abuses” in Moura.
The U.S. State Department referred to the event as a “reported massacre.” Ned Price, a department spokesman, said on Sunday in a statement, “We are concerned that many reports suggest that the perpetrators were unaccountable forces from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.”
On Monday, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top diplomat, urged the Malian authorities to grant the United Nations Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, access to the site of the killings. The mission has a base in Mopti, about 30 miles from Moura. But access to Moura is limited, said Myriam Dessables, a mission spokeswoman.
“It is a flooded area with restricted and difficult access and with a proven presence of violent extremist groups,” she said.
At least 71 civilians were killed by the Malian armed forces between December 2021 and last month, according to Humans Rights Watch, and in several instances witnesses said they had been accompanied by “white soldiers” speaking an unknown language. Analysts and Western officials have identified those soldiers as belonging to the Wagner group.
Yvan Guichaoua, a senior lecturer on international conflict at the University of Kent who specializes in the Sahel region, said that Malian forces had a long history of abuses, even before the military junta toppled civilian leaders in the two coups in 2020 and 2021. He said that military abuses fell in the second part of last year, but increased this year.
“That uptick coincides with the arrival of Russian forces,” Mr. Guichaoua said. “The frequency and the scale of these attacks are unprecedented.”
A reporter for The New York Times contributed reporting from Mali.