OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — The French military has released videos appearing to show Russian mercenaries burying bodies near an army base in northern Mali, which it says is part of a smear campaign against the French who handed the base to Malian forces earlier this week.
Aerial surveillance images taken by the French military on Thursday morning and provided to The Associated Press show what appear to be 10 Caucasian soldiers covering approximately a dozen Malian bodies with sand 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) east of the Gossi military base in the country’s north, according to a French military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press on the matter.
In the video one of the soldiers appears to be filming the scene. The Caucasian soldiers in the video are believed to be members of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary force, the officer said.
Several tweets with pictures of the bodies have been posted on accounts that support Russia or fake accounts created by Wagner, the officer said. The tweets blame the French for the killings and the burials, according to the French officer.
One tweet from an account called Dia Diarra, allegedly created by Wagner, said: “This is what the French left behind when they left base at #Gossi. These are excerpts from a video that was taken after they left! We cannot keep silent about this!”
The French army transferred control of the Gossi base to Malian soldiers on Tuesday, in what the French said was a safe, orderly and transparent manner. Later that day a “French sensor observed a dozen Caucasian individuals, most likely belonging to the Wagner Group,” and a detachment from the Malian army arrive at the Gossi site and unload equipment, said the French military in a confidential report that was seen by AP.
Mali’s army spokesman Col. Souleymane Dembele said that a team has been dispatched to Gossi to investigate, adding “it is still early for us to react on this case.”
The French military said the move to discredit the French forces operating in northern Mali is part of a coordinated campaign of multiple information attacks on them that has been going on for months.
“The Wagner Group and the Malian Armed Forces appear to be taking disregard for human life to new levels in Mali,” said Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati in the United States.
“Anti-French sentiments, however, reflect more than just Russian disinformation. The Malian junta and Wagner are trying to harness those frustrations, but they did not create them,” he said.
French troops have been a major presence in Mali since helping to dislodge jihadi rebels from strongholds in northern Mali in 2013. But the extremists’ attacks on civilians and the military have continued as the rebels have pushed south. The ongoing violence has prompted numerous anti-French protests in the capital.
In February, France announced it would withdraw its troops from Mali amid tensions with the country’s ruling military junta and the West African country’s decision to employ Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group. About 1,000 of the Russian mercenaries are believed to be operating in Mali, according to military experts.
Earlier this month foreign soldiers thought to be the Russians working with the Malian army were accused of killing an estimated 300 men — some of them suspected Islamic extremist fighters but most civilians — in Moura in central Mali, according to Human Rights Watch. It was the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s 10-year armed conflict against Islamic extremists, according to the group which said it interviewed several witnesses about the killings.
It’s unclear where the bodies seen in the video Friday came from. The French military official said they might have possibly been taken from near Hombori town, approximately 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Gossi, where there had been fighting a few days earlier, but he could not confirm it.
The apparently staged graves can be seen as the latest example of Russia’s disinformation campaign to damage France’s reputation and it also reflects badly on Mali’s army, which must have been aware of the Russians’ actions, said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan-based organization focused on economics and policy.
“This incident at Gossi camp will further put Mali’s junta at odds with the international community, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they come up with an unrealistic explanation,” he said.
He said the aerial images provided by the French military have largely stymied the Russian disinformation effort. “This is a big win for France who’s been facing tough times about its reputation in Mali,” he said.
AP writer Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed.