It was market day in the town of Moura in central Mali when Malian troops backed by white mercenaries descended in helicopters and opened fire on bewildered residents, according to witnesses' accounts.
Stall-owner Amadou saw the soldiers fan out across town on the morning of March 27, and ran home. They arrested him hours later and took him to a riverbank on the outskirts of town, where thousands of men sat with their hands tied.
Over the next four days, the men stayed in the blazing sun with little food or water and watched as soldiers gradually took groups aside, led them to the lip of a mass grave and shot them, Amadou and two other witnesses told Reuters.
"It was unimaginable," he said, overcome with exhaustion and emotion. "They came, they took 15, 20 people and lined them up. They made them kneel down and shot them."
The witnesses gave their accounts in the Malian capital Bamako.
Most of the soldiers who killed civilians were Malian, they said. But dozens of white men in army fatigues who spoke what the residents believed was Russian, were actively involved, they said. French is widely spoken in Mali, but the government soldiers and the white men communicated in sign language as they did not speak the same language.
The white men were the first to get out of the helicopters and open fire on fleeing residents, four onlookers said.
Mali's army said it killed 203 militants during a military operation in Moura. It denies reports of executions and has not responded to a request by Reuters for comment.
Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor that recently started working with the Malian army, could not be reached for comment
By Global Africa news team & Reuters