Accusations of summary killings haunt Malian army
A leading rights group accused Malian soldiers Wednesday of summary killings and serious abuses in the course of a French-led assault against Al Qaeda-linked groups, as concerns rose over the conflict's civilian toll.
Japan, which lost seven citizens in a deadly Islamist backlash in neighbouring Algeria against the French-led offensive, decided on Wednesday to close its embassy in Bamako citing a deteriorating security situation.
Nearly two weeks after France swept to Mali's aid to stop an Islamist advance towards the capital Bamako, reports emerged of atrocities committed by Malian soldiers and growing fears of attacks among light-skinned ethnic communities.
The majority of the Al Qaeda-linked rebels being hunted by the armies are either Tuaregs or Arabs.
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said that in the central town of Sevare at least 11 people were executed in a military camp near the bus station and the town's hospital, citing evidence gathered by local researchers.
Credible reports also pointed to around 20 other people having been executed in the same area and the bodies having been dumped in wells or otherwise disposed of, the organisation said.
At Nioro, in the west of the country close to the border with Mauritania, two Malian Tuaregs were executed by Malian soldiers, according to the FIDH.
The organisation called for an immediate independent inquiry commission to "determine the scale of the abuses and to punish the perpetrators."
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has hailed France's "courageous" intervention but expressed fears over the safety of humanitarian workers and UN employees on the ground.
The tense security situation, heightened after the cross border attack in Algeria which left 37 hostages dead, prompted Japan to shut its embassy and evacuate key staff.
"After the French military advance the already unstable situation in Mali worsened further," foreign ministry spokesman Yutaka Yokoi told reporters in Tokyo.
On the ground French and Malian troops were due to sweep the outskirts of towns recently recaptured from the Al Qaeda-linked rebels for landmines they suspect the extremists left as they fled an air and ground assault by the armies.
France said it had already 2,300 soldiers in the West African nation, whose poorly-trained and -equipped force has been overwhelmed by Islamist rebels occupying the vast arid north since April and seeking to push south.
The former colonial power has said its troops will eventually hand over control to a UN-mandated West African force of more than 4,000 troops to be boosted by 2,000 men from Chad.
The fallout from the war, which experts have warned could be drawn out and complex, is causing concerns.
The UN refugee agency estimates up to a million people could have fled their homes in coming months, and rights bodies have warned of the dire situation faced by those escaping fighting.
There are also increasing reports of attacks on light-skinned Tuareg or Arabs from Malian security forces.
"Here if you wear a turban, have a beard and wear a Tuareg robe, you are threatened," said a shopowner in Segou, a town some 270 kilometres northeast of Bamako. "It has become very dangerous for us since this war started."
Malian army chief General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele promised that any soldier involved in abuses would be brought to book.
"One mustn't get confused. Every white skin is not a terrorist or a jihadist and among the enemy which attacked our different position were many black skins. We are among brothers, whether one is black or white."
Meanwhile international moves to aid the operations have accelerated with the US military airlifting French troops and equipment from France into Mali.
Italy, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Arab Emirates are also providing transport planes or helicopters required to help move the African and French troops around Mali's vast expanses.
Mali's year-long crisis began when Tuaregs returning from fighting Gathafi's war in Libya, battle-hardened and with a massive arsenal, took up a decades-old rebellion for independence of the north which they call Azawad.
They allied with hardline Islamists amid a political vacuum in Bamako after a March coup, and seized the key towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu in a matter of days.
The Islamists later broke with their Tuareg allies, and with firm control of the north, implemented an extreme form of Islamic law.
The occupation sparked fears abroad that the vast northern half of the country could become a new Afghanistan-like haven for Al-Qaeda.