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The Wagner Skull Comes to the Sahel

FILE - A Wagner Group mercenary stands next to a Central African Republic soldier in Bangui, March 18, 2022.

Africa's Sahel - below the Sahara - has suffered insurgencies for years. But a new and bloody element - Russia-based Wagner Group - has come to West Africa. As the Washington Post reports, this private military company has shown the ruthlessness depicted by the menacing skull on its official logo.

“The Russians are making Mali less safe,” said a Malian conflict researcher based in the heart of the insurgency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the government has arrested critics. “They can loot and massacre the population without consequences.”

These Russians and others in the same uniform are hired triggers for the private military company Wagner Group. And their results are bloody.

The Washington Post reported that the NGO Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which tallies conflicts around the world, estimates that between January and mid-April 2022, Wagner fighters and Malian soldiers together killed at least 456 civilians.

A 300 person massacre took place in Moura over four days in late March, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Author Corinne Dufka was quoted by The Post as saying "I've documented atrocities by all sides in Mali for over a decade, and while armed Islamists have massacred hundreds of people, this is the worst single atrocity by any group."

Wagner came to Mali in 2021 after its government was overthrown by a military junta. The new regime made it clear to France that it was no longer welcome, and Paris responded by pulling out its forces. Observers say Wagner filled that void to the benefit of Bamako's power holders.

The Malian "interim" government denied having Wagner Group on its payroll - The Post says Bamako states that it only works with uniformed Russian military instructors.

Analysts assert that Wagner is there not only to support Mali's military regime, but also, their use provides what diplomats call "plausible deniability" to Moscow as it spreads its presence and impact across Africa. The idea behind that term is that if something is to be done, it is not by official hands.

In March, when The Post asked the Russian government about Wagner's presence and conduct in Mali, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said "We have nothing to do with the activities of private military companies abroad."

Wagner Group is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The "Wagner" came from Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin's nickname. It was formed in 2014, and has been reported operating in Sudan and more recently in the Central African Republic.

The Post quoted Pentagon sources as pegging the number of Russian mercenaries in Mali at between 800 and 1,000, which the newspaper said is costing Bamako's military junta as much as $10 million a month.

And, The Post said, Malians are being bombarded by an allegedly Russian-run "sophisticated disinformation campaign" with rallies featuring Russian flags and the celebration of Wagner's presence.

The UNHCR can attest to Wagner's effectiveness on Mali's civilians. It says that since the PMC arrived, there has been a wave of refugees seeking shelter in next-door Mauretania. The UN agency says border-side refugee camps have swelled fourfold since February.

The United Nations investigations team working to uncover instances of human rights violations and ex-judicial killings, The Post reports, has tried since February to get to suspected slaughter sites, but has been blocked by the regime.

As people die in Mali, the profits earned by Wagner Group there go back to Moscow, The Post said. Without a light shining on those who give the orders.

The Washington Post reported that requests for comments made to both the Russian and Malian governments were not responded to.