Rights allegations in Mali cloud visit by France's Hollande

Fri Feb 1, 2013 8:37am EST
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By Richard Valdmanis and Benoit Tessier

BAMAKO/TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) - Human rights groups said on Friday a French-led offensive against Islamists in Mali had led to civilian deaths in airstrikes and ethnic reprisals by Malian troops, a day before President Francois Hollande was due to visit the country.

France has deployed more than 3,500 ground forces in a lightning three-week campaign that has wrested control of northern Mali's towns from an al Qaeda-linked alliance.

The aim is to prevent the Islamist fighters from using Mali's ungoverned desert north to launch attacks in neighboring African countries and the West.

Residents in the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu have greeted their liberation by French troops with joy, after Islamist radicals had destroyed the town's sacred Sufi mausoleums, burned ancient manuscripts and imposed a harsh form of sharia law, including whippings and amputations.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, however, cited eyewitness reports of extrajudicial killings by Malian government soldiers of dozens of civilians in the central towns of Sevare and Konna.

They said the troops targeted light-skinned Arab and Tuareg ethnic groups associated with the rebels. The Malian military has denied any reprisal killings by its soldiers and the government in Bamako has publicly warned against revenge attacks.

Amnesty also reported that at least five civilians - including a mother and her three children - were killed by a helicopter rocket attack on the morning of January 11 in Konna, seized by the Islamists in an offensive two days earlier.

"Neither the Malians nor the French took the required precautions to avoid hitting civilian targets," Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty's lead researcher for West Africa, told a news conference in Bamako. "We've asked France and authorities in Bamako to open an independent investigation."   Continued...

Malian children stand in front of a tent at the refugee camp of Taberey Baraye, some 7km (4 miles) from Ayorou, near the Mali-Niger border January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Alain Amontchi