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MALI-MAURITANIA BORDER—The leaders of Mali’s junta gathered at Bamako airport earlier this month to hail the latest delivery from their new benefactor: the Kremlin.
On the northern end of the airstrip stood a line of attack aircraft, including Russian jet fighters and helicopter gunships to send to the front line of a decadelong war against jihadists, according to footage of the ceremony on Malian state television. On the southern end, out of sight, was the swelling base of Wagner Group, the Kremlin-linked military company that has deployed some 1,000 mercenaries into Mali in exchange for cash and the potential for lucrative mining concessions.
“This batch of military equipment reflects our commitment to do everything possible to enhance the operations of our defense and security forces,” said
Colonel Assimi Goita,
who seized power in a 2020 coup and gave no details on how the aircraft were acquired. Standing next to him was Russia’s ambassador, Igor Gromyko, grandson of Andrei Gromyko, a prominent Soviet-era diplomat, who added: “Cooperation with Mali is going very well in the military field and in all other areas.” Shortly after, Mr. Goita received a call from President
Russia’s conventional forces are getting bogged down in Ukraine. But in weak-but-resource-rich states, its military diplomacy is becoming more entrenched and unbridled.
This year, Wagner mercenaries have deployed alongside Malian forces across the West African nation’s central and northern states. Since March, Russian fighters have been involved in at least six alleged massacres, according to survivors, Western and United Nations officials and human-rights organizations, causing tens of thousands of people to flee across the border to Mauritania.
U.N. investigators, in an unpublished report viewed by The Wall Street Journal, said a joint force of Malian and “white-skinned” fighters raided a group of herders near the border with Mauritania, executing dozens of them. While the incident took place as part of an operation against jihadists, there was no fighting and the herders were unarmed, survivors told the Journal in interviews.
In several cases, Wagner sent geologists to scout resource-rich regions in southwest and central Mali ahead of its mercenaries, Western security officials said, adding that the timing suggests that Wagner is using military force to clear populations from areas where jihadists operate so that the company can access them for exploration and mining.
“Mali is the nexus of a country with important natural resources and a weak government, where Russia can provide services and get access through Wagner,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a Russia-focused fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Neither Wagner nor the Kremlin responded to requests for comment. Mali’s junta, armed forces and mining ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment. Mali’s Foreign Minister,
told the U.N. Security Council in June, “We know nothing about Wagner.”
Mali is one of a growing list of African countries where an isolated Mr. Putin is seeking to leverage a network of allies outside government to project power and raise revenue. The Wagner Group is now operating in Mali, Syria, Sudan and the Central African Republic. With an estimated 5,000 men stationed on the continent, its footprint is almost as large as the U.S. deployment of around 6,000 troops and support personnel.
a businessman who is known as President Putin’s chef because of his catering contracts with the Kremlin, Wagner has become a key tool of Russian influence and alternative revenue in faraway conflict zones, according to the U.S. government and EU Council, both of which have sanctioned the group.
On Ukraine’s battlefield, Wagner soldiers operate under the overall command of the Russian military unit responsible for the area, and are integrated into the Russian military’s logistics chain, according to Ukraine’s military-intelligence agency. Mr. Prigozhin, who has been repeatedly photographed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and touring Russian prisons to recruit new fighters, was recently given the country’s highest award, the Hero of Russia.
The Kremlin says it has no connection to Wagner, but Russia’s official media has in recent months been awash with reportage about the company’s heroic exploits in Ukraine.
Mr. Prigozhin has repeatedly denied any affiliation with Wagner and said in a recent written answer to a question from the Journal that he “doesn’t know anything” about the group.
The company offers muscular military assistance to allies without officially implicating the Kremlin. Mr. Prigozhin and Wagner mercenaries regularly travel on Russian military aircraft in Africa, said Gleb Irisov, a former Russian air force signals officer who defected to the West, as well as Western security officials. In Mali, Wagner has been quietly evolving into a much larger network of businesses, including mining firms and political consultants which offer gold-extraction services, advice on political campaigning and social media disinformation, according to the U.S. Treasury.
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Wagner’s African operations have produced mixed results. The company was hired by Mozambique in 2019 to crush an affiliate of Islamic State, but was forced to retreat after several of its fighters were captured and beheaded by the jihadists, say Western and African officials. Mozambique scrapped the outfit’s contract. In Mauritania, civic organizations have protested the killings of the country’s citizens on the other side of the border.
The stakes are especially high in Mali, a mineral-rich country as big as the combined territory of California, Texas and Montana that has been roiled by conflict with Tuareg ethnic rebels and, more recently, violent jihadist groups.
France, the former colonial power in Bamako, retained influence here and stepped in with a military intervention after jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda and Islamic State took over the country’s north in 2012. The U.S. and other Western nations came to assist the French-led operation as a part of a broad effort to root out extremists from the Sahel region in northern Africa.
A year after a pro-Russian military faction seized power in 2021, the French began pulling out their 1,000 troops. Relations quickly chilled between Mali and Washington. In April, the U.S. State Department blocked the junta’s request to import a military-grade transponder for their single C-295 turboprop troop transporter “due to foreign policy concerns,” according to documents reviewed by the Journal.
Frustrated at being frozen out by the West, members of the junta met with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, at the U.N., say Western security officials. Mr. Lavrov invited them to Moscow, where they were offered a tour of Wagner services. One senior U.S. official said Washington was blindsided by Russia’s arrival. “We were watching jihadists and not the Malian government and definitely not the Russians,” the official said.
Wagner signed a contract in December of 2021 with the junta, agreeing to help with the fight against Islamist extremists in exchange for $10 million a month, say Western security and U.N. officials.
Wagner quickly made it clear that it had other financial ambitions beyond collecting a monthly mercenary paycheck.
In March, Wagner deployed Andrei Mandel, the head of the St. Petersburg, Russia-based natural-resources venture M Invest, to Mali, the Western security officials said. Mr. Mandel already had a record with the U.S. In 2020, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned him for alleged involvement with Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. That same year, he and Mr. Prigozhin drew sanctions for allegedly attempting to interfere in U.S. elections and for operating gold ventures in Sudan, which Washington said was exploiting the country’s minerals and “serving as a cover” for Wagner forces operating there.
The U.S. extended an asset freeze to companies including M Invest, which it said “serves as a cover” for Wagner forces operating in Sudan and barred U.S. citizens and entities from entering into any transactions with them.
Neither Mr. Prigozhin nor M Invest responded to requests for comment on the mining company. Mr. Mandel couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mali is Africa’s fourth-biggest exporter of gold. Mali also holds large reserves of oil, manganese, uranium, and lithium, a metal used to make electric-car batteries, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Geological Survey.
The government is negotiating with Wagner over two gold-mining concessions in the south of Mali, according to Hamma Agh Mahmoud, a Tuareg leader and former Malian minister.
This summer, Wagner forces moved close to Intahaka in the northeast, the site of a giant informal gold mine worked by villagers with picks and shovels, said another Tuareg leader, and the Western security officials. These people said the Malian army and local rebel groups have an arrangement to let the villagers work the mine in exchange for a percentage of the production.
They said Wagner has been brought into that deal, which could give the Russian company access to a stake in the area’s gold revenue stream.
Sudanese gold traders who long dominated the trade across swaths of Mali have left, as a result of military operations, the Western officials said, replaced by Russians who are selling Malian gold in Dubai through middlemen.
With its new military deployment, “Wagner is moving to take over the North’s natural resources,” said Mr. Agh Mahmoud, the Tuareg leader.
Caught in the middle of Wagner’s ambitions are local populations across Mali’s western and central provinces. Thousands have fled across neighboring borders.
Wagner troops first deployed with Malian forces in February at the Diabaly military base, in Western Mali, using the facility to conduct torture and executions of suspected jihadists, say Western security officials and human-rights organizations. The group then moved along one of the country’s main trunk roads to an area near Mauritania, where nomadic herders roam both sides of the border.
It was there, near a well known as Robinet El Ataye, that the attack documented by the U.N. took place on March 5. A Mauritanian herder said he was there that morning when a convoy of motorcycles arrived with men in baklavas and gloves, as well as two pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. The herder said the soldiers included members of the Malian army and Wagner mercenaries.
The herder said the troops loaded goats and sheeps into their trucks and then seemed to be working through a list of names of people to detain. “They tied my hands in the back and blindfolded me with my turban,” he said. They took away 35 people, the herder said, including a cousin and an elder brother, but left him and two others behind.
Two days later, a villager who was looking for his cattle found burned bodies around 10 miles away, then brought the herder to the scene on a motorcycle. “We could not identify them,” said the herder. “When we left, I realized my cousin and my brother had been killed,” he said. “I will never see them again.”
Later that month, another joint Wagner-Malian group headed north, killing an estimated 500 people, in the market town of Moura in central Mali, according to survivors, Western security officials and human-rights activists.
The Wagner troops that accompanied the local army didn’t identify themselves but came with the same attire and equipment as publicly-available pictures of Russian mercenaries in Mali, the survivors said.
Survivors say the mercenaries took a prominent part in the rounding and killing of locals. Ibrahima Tamboura, 25, who ran a Moura market stall, said he witnessed the execution of a neighbor. “The white men killed someone in front of the house,” he said. “They shot him at close range with a big machine gun, bigger than normal ones they have in Mali.
Mali’s government says that in Moura it killed 203 terrorists linked to al Qaeda and has said that the men had likely died from bullet wounds while fighting.
Displaced survivors say they have been left destitute after the combined Wagner and Malian forces plundered their cattle and savings, which they carried in cash and gold. Disruptions to cross-border trading corridors and the harvest of millet are pushing regional food prices higher.
“The Wagner Group will not bring peace to Mali,” Richard Mills Jr., the U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N. said in June. “Instead, it will only divert natural and economic resources away from Mali’s fight against terrorism.”
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