The UN's human rights body on Tuesday accused Malian soldiers of carrying out retaliatory attacks that appeared to target specific ethnic groups, and demanded that Mali investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The preliminary findings of a UN mission to Mali last month showed "that the recent military intervention in the north of Mali was followed by a serious escalation of retaliatory violence by government soldiers who appear to be targeting members of the Peuhl, Tuareg and Arab ethnic groups," UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said.
The mission was ordered by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to substantiate reports of serious human rights violations in the northern territories recovered from Islamist rebels following a French-led intervention that began in January.
France launched a military operation on January 11 to prevent Al-Qaeda-linked groups that had occupied northern Mali for nine months from pushing south and threatening the capital Bamako.
The groups apparently targeted by Malian soldiers "are perceived to be supportive of the armed groups," or retreating Islamists, Kang told diplomats at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The "situation has been exacerbated by the propagation of inflammatory messages, including through the media, stigmatising members of these communities, thousands of whom have reportedly fled out of fear of reprisal by the Malian army," Kang said.
"Those who remain in the country are afraid of being targeted not for what they have done, but for who they are," she added.
Kang urged "Malian authorities to protect the communities at risk and to ensure that their troops act in accordance with human rights law and international humanitarian law."
"Allegations of involvement of the elements of the Malian army in acts of reprisals against civilians should be investigated and those responsible should be brought to justice," she said.
Malian Justice Minister Malick Coulibaly defended the army, saying that any retaliatory attacks "can only be isolated acts for which the perpetrators will be tried and punished."
He said Mali had agreed to work with the International Criminal Court in The Hague which could "prosecute human rights violations that the Malian state cannot or refuses to pursue."
Coulibaly stressed that "Mali is not in a war against an ethnicity, a race, a religion or a region."
"It would be insane for us to go to war against the Arabs or the Tuaregs ... since many of our Arab and Tuareg compatriots are fighting at this very moment within the armed forces and security forces to reestablish Mali's territorial integrity," he said.
Kang also presented a UN report published ahead of the French-led intervention and covering the period from January through November 2012 that lists massive human rights abuses carried out by the Al-Qaeda-linked groups that grabbed northern Mali last April.
The groups had imposed strict Sharia law on the population and carried out violations like summary executions, rape and torture, she said.
"The report indicates that armed groups have been recruiting children as young as 10 years old to participate in hostilities in Gao and Timbuktu," she said.
While acknowledging the Malian government's commitments to fight impunity for these crimes and others, Kang said "these commitments are ... not yet sufficiently translated into concrete actions to ensure that prompt and independent investigations are carried out in order to identify and prosecute perpetrators and provide effective remedies to victims."