Mali army, rebels accused of rights abuses

Rights groups accused both sides of torturing and killing civilians.

French troops patrol in the streets of Gao on February 3, 2013. France said it carried out major air strikes on the same day near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali's desert north in a lightning French-led offensive. Picture: AFP / Sia Kambou

BAMAKO - Rights groups on Friday accused Mali's army and Tuareg separatist rebels of torturing and killing civilians despite the presence of France's military, hours before peace talks between the two sides were due to begin.

Amnesty International said a month-long research mission to Mali found the army had tortured dozens of people suspected of collaborating with the MNLA Tuareg rebels or Islamist groups which seized control of north Mali early last year.

It documented more than 20 cases of extra-judicial executions and arbitrary killings by the army and the MUJWA Islamist group in northern Mali.

Amnesty said the bodies of Mohamed Lemine and Mohamed Tidjani had been discovered days after they were arrested by the Malian security forces on January 28, the day Malian forces retook the town of Timbuktu.

The group also said it had spoken to more than 80 detainees in Bamako. Many said they had been tortured or denied medical treatment, and some had scars of burnings and cuts on their backs, chests and ears.

A French-led military campaign launched in January broke the grip of a loose Islamist coalition, including MUJWA and al Qaeda's North African arm AQIM, over the desert region, where the militants had imposed harsh sharia Islamic law.

Amnesty's report voiced concern that soldiers from France and a West African regional force (AFISMA) handed prisoners to the Malian authorities knowing there was a risk they would be tortured or ill-treated.

"The Malian security forces' human rights record since January is, simply, appalling. They continue to violate human rights with apparently no fear of being held accountable," said Amnesty researcher Gaƫtan Mootoo.

"Ensuring that all those responsible for human rights abuses face justice will not be an easy task but it's the key to a lasting stabilization and rebirth of a country torn apart for more than 18 months," Mootoo said.