African forces moved towards Mali’s centre on Thursday, as the European Union joined a chorus of concern over summary killings and abuses in the offensive on al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The first troops from a UN-mandated African force aimed at replacing the French mission have “already started to move towards central towns”, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Paris.
He said 1,000 troops from West African countries and Chad had already arrived in Mali, which has been split in two since April.
“The African force is deploying much faster than expected,” Fabius said. “Obviously that poses a number of logistical difficulties but I have to say that I have seen a very big effort by our African friends.”
A Malian defence official said that 160 soldiers from Burkina Faso had arrived in Markala, 270 kilometres north of the capital Bamako, to “take up the baton from the French” guarding a strategic bridge on the Niger river.
“They are already in place and could then go on to Niono and Diabaly,” two towns farther north, the source said, adding: “After the French, it will be the Africans who are on the ground”.
The UN has authorised the deployment of a 3,300-strong force under the auspices of 15-nation West African bloc Ecowas. The involvement of non-member Chad could boost the African deployment by another 2,000 soldiers.
Two weeks after France swept to Mali’s aid to stop an Islamist advance towards 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.
“We are very worried by reports evoking the possibility of ethnic attacks and fighting and abuses committed in revenge attacks,” said EU humanitarian aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva in remarks translated in French.
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.
Twenty others were executed in the same area and the bodies dumped in wells or otherwise disposed of, the organisation said, adding that two Tuaregs were executed by Malian soldiers in the central town of Niono.
The organisation called for an immediate independent inquiry to “determine the scale of the abuses and to punish the perpetrators”.
The rights group Human Rights Watch said its investigators had spoken to witnesses who saw the executions of two Tuareg men in the village of Siribala, near Niono.
The group also said witnesses had reported “credible information” of soldiers sexually abusing women in a village near Sevare, and called on the government to urgently investigate these incidents.
‘The honour of Malian soldiers at stake’
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged extreme “vigilance” against any abuses, saying the “honour of the (Malian) troops is at stake”.
“We cannot accept any rights violations. The international community will face a very serious situation if (the intervention force) is identified with abuses,” Fabius added.
France said it had already deployed 2,300 soldiers in Mali, a former colony, whose poorly trained and equipped force has been overwhelmed by Islamist rebels occupying the vast arid north and seeking to push south.
International moves to support the French-led operation gathered pace, with the US military airlifting French troops and equipment from France into Mali.
French General Francois Lecointre, who heads a planned 450-strong EU team in Mali to train soldiers, said the aim of the mission was to “help the Malian army reconstruct itself.
“The Malian army needs equipment because it has lost some of the equipment it had and the country is not rich. It ... really needs to recreate the trust that will give it the necessary moral strength to go fighting,” he added.
Mali’s year-old crisis began when Tuaregs returning from fighting for slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi 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 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.