Remains of 21 people found near barracks in Mali

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — A mass grave containing 21 skulls has been discovered near the Kati military barracks, formerly the fief of the country's military strongman, Mali's chief prosecutor announced Wednesday.

The remains are believed to be of soldiers who opposed the leader's rise to power and their discovery paves the way for Gen. Amadou Haya Sanogo to be charged with murder, said prosecutor Daniel Tessougue.

A forensic team began the exhumation on Tuesday at 6 p.m. and finished unearthing the bodies at around 3 a.m. Wednesday, said Tessougue who spoke to the The Associated Press by telephone. The spot where the remains were found matches the place where witnesses said around 20 soldiers were shot and killed by troops loyal to Sanogo in May 2012.

"I went there myself to the spot, and we uncovered 21 skulls, which leads us to believe that we are dealing here with 21 bodies. The place still smelled bad. There were only pieces of bone, and the skulls. We also discovered metal chains inside the mass grave, which leads us to think that the people who were killed had been tied together with a chain," Tessougue said.

In a move that has been applauded by the international community, the prosecutor arrested Sanogo last week, charging him with complicity in the kidnapping of his fellow soldiers. Now that the bodies have been found, Tessougue says Sanogo will also be charged with assassination. Human Rights Watch called the arrest of the feared leader a "big step for justice."

On March 21, 2012, Sanogo led the military coup, which reversed two decades of democracy in this landlocked nation. Sanogo, at that time a captain, was backed by the rank-and-file soldiers at the Kati barracks, who marched on the presidential palace, toppling the former leader. Sanogo was opposed, however, by the elite paratroopers known as the Red Berets who made-up the presidential guard of the country's ousted leader. When the Red Berets attempted to lead a countercoup on April 30, 2012, Sanogo responded with blunt force, organizing what human rights groups describe as a purge of the military.

In the early morning hours of May 2, 2012, at least 20 soldiers who had taken part in the countercoup disappeared, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The few who survived described being handcuffed and hogtied, beaten with batons, sticks, and gun butts, and kicked in the back, head, ribs and genitals. Around 20 were placed in a military truck, where a witness said he saw them with their hands bound behind their backs, their eyes covered. The mother of one of the missing men told Human Rights watch that her son made one last phone call, saying the soldiers detaining him were arguing about whether to kill him.

For most of 2012, Sanogo instilled fear in Mali, despite the fact that he had officially stepped down and handed power to a civilian government. Although the country's interim leader set up his office inside the presidential palace, it was clear that the real seat of power was Kati barracks, where Sanogo continued to hold court, receiving daily visits from diplomats and politicians.

This summer, Mali held its first presidential election since the coup, electing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known by his initials of IBK, and at first, rights groups worried that he would continue the former government's hands-off policy regarding to Sanogo.

Anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse, an expert on Mali, says that if you looked carefully, the writing was on the wall. In early October, Sanogo was forced to move out of his fief at Kati barracks and move into a residential neighborhood in Bamako. The move undercut his ability to sow trouble, since the ex-junta leader was now removed from the rank-and-file soldiers who had backed his rise to power. In early November, the army chief of staff, a longtime Sanogo ally, was removed, another sign that Keita was not going to humor Sanogo.

"Many other recent developments in Bamako suggest that the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita ("IBK") has been gradually stripping the Kati junta of whatever power it still exercised," Whitehouse wrote in a recent blog post. "With Sanogo's arrest this morning, these events have reached their logical conclusion. When he was elected last summer, IBK was commonly perceived as Sanogo's ally; he had even been described as "the junta's candidate. Rather than attack his supposed ally head-on, Mali's president has been biding his time, incrementally ratcheting up the pressure on the junta."

If Mali succeeds in prosecuting Sanogo, it will be a first for this troubled region, where coup leaders seize power and then negotiate a golden parachute including immunity from prosecution in return for giving the country back to the people. In neighboring Guinea, another captain — Moussa Dadis Camara — led a 2008 coup. He is accused of ordering a daylight massacre one year later in which over 100 civilians were mowed down inside the national soccer stadium, and dozens of women were gang raped by his soldiers. Camara is now living a life of comfortable exile, after agreeing to a deal that shielded him from facing charges.

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Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.