A France-based human rights group on Wednesday accused Malian forces of dozens of "summary executions" and other abuses as they counter-attack Islamist extremists holed up in the West African country's hinterlands with key support from French air power and troops.
The International Federation for Human Rights, or FIDH by its French acronym, is calling for the creation of an independent commission to look into the crimes and punish those responsible.
FIDH charged that Malian forces were behind about 33 killings — including of ethnic Tuaregs — since new fighting erupted Jan. 10 along the narrow belt between the government-controlled south and the north, which has been under the control of al-Qaeda-linked militants for months.
The human rights group didn't specify the source of its information. Journalists have been refused access to the area while trying to cover the French intervention that began Jan. 11 — notably with punishing air strikes involving fighter jets and helicopter gunships.
The claims come as international backing continued to pour in for France's intervention. Pentagon officials said a U.S. airlift of French forces to Mali is expected to continue for another two weeks. Hundreds of African soldiers from Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and Senegal are now joining.
Human rights groups have expressed concern about the situation in Mali — notably the activities of Malian troops. In a statement, FIDH pointed to "a series of summary executions" perpetrated by Malian forces notably in the towns of Sevare, Mopti, Niono and others along the lines of clashes.
In Sevare, at least 11 people were killed at a military camp, near its bus station and its hospital, and "credible information" pointed to about 20 other executions with the bodies "buried hastily, notably in wells," FIDH said.
Malian troops also killed two ethnic Tuaregs in the Niono region, and "other allegations of summary executions continue to come to us," the group said.
Dozens of ethnic Tuaregs in Bamako, Mali's capital far to the west, have had their homes raided by Malian forces, and at times been subjected to pillage and intimidation, the group said.
All of the victims are accused of being infiltrators or of having ties to the extremists, of possessing weapons, or of not being able to produce identity papers or "simply targeted because of their ethnicity," it said.
Asked about concerns of rights abuses by the Malian army, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said last week that protecting human rights and battling impunity was a priority for France, which "will do everything to stop violations of human rights across Mali."
The Islamist fighters have controlled the vast desert stretches of northern Mali, with the weak government clinging to the south, since a military coup in the capital in March last year unleashed chaos.
The U.S. Air Force is keeping between eight and 10 people at the airport in Mali's capital to help with the incoming and outgoing flights, the Pentagon said late Tuesday. The U.S. has already flown five C-17 flights into Bamako, delivering more than 80 French troops and 112 tonnes of equipment, it said.
French officials confirmed Tuesday that Malian forces, backed by French air power, retook the key towns of Diabaly and Douentza. Douentza had been held by Islamist rebels for four months and is located 195 kilometres northeast of Mopti, the previous line-of-control held by the Malian military in Mali's narrow central belt. French and Malian troops arrived in Douentza on Monday to find that the Islamists had retreated from it.
France launched its intervention on Jan. 11 — a day after Islamic extremists captured the central town of Konna, threatening a possible advance toward Bamako. France has said its forces will stay as long as necessary in Mali, but wants other African countries to the lead in helping Mali. Hundreds of African forces have been pouring in.
The central African country of Chad, which has troops familiar with desert terrain like that of northern Mali, has offered as many as 2,000 troops for the Mali intervention.
The U.S. is not providing direct aid to the Malian military because the democratically elected government was overthrown last March in a coup.
Canada has committed to one transport plane for one week ending Thursday. To date, the C-17 has been involved in daily shuttles delivering heavy equipment to Mali's capital, Bamako, from a military base in France.
But Canada is expected to extend its commitment to Mali, pending consultations from allies, CBC News has learned.
A spokesperson for Defence Minister Peter MacKay's office confirmed the scope of the mission could include moving troops as part of "logistical support." But Rick Roth, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, told the CBC that "Canada is not, and will not be, considering a Canadian combat role in Mali."With files from CBC News