Rights campaigners denounce abuses in Mali

Rights campaigners accused Mali's army and different rebel groups Friday of a string of abuses during a French-led operation to liberate the divided west African nation from Islamist militants.

Amnesty International said civilians were among dozens of people tortured, killed and disappeared, including while in detention, since the launch of the French army's intervention in the country in January.

"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 International researcher Gaetan Mootoo.

The organisation accused the French military and African troops of handing over prisoners to the Malian authorities "when they knew or should have known the detainees were at real risk of being tortured or ill-treated".

Amnesty, which began a research mission in Mali in May, said it had collected testimonies of abductions and arbitrary killings of civilians by Islamist militias including the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

"Armed opposition groups, including MUJAO and the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad were also accused of sexually abusing women and girls and using children to carry weapons, control checkpoints and cook," Amnesty said in a statement.

France went into its former colony to prevent Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgents who had occupied the cities of the vast northern desert since April 2012 from progressing to the capital.

After recapturing the north, the offensive took the fight to the retreating insurgents' toughest desert bastions and the attacking forces now face a guerrilla campaign that includes sudden raids, suicide attacks and land mines.

The vacuum left by the Islamists' retreat has allowed the MNLA to regain a foothold in the northeastern city of Kidal, with other groups also staking a claim on the region.

Mali's army has declared its intention to recapture Kidal before a presidential election due on July 28, reinforcing positions after heavy fighting south of the city this week.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted the arrests by MNLA fighters in Kidal over the weekend of around 100 people, mostly darker-skinned non-Tuareg men, saying that witnesses had testified that the MNLA had robbed, threatened, and severely beaten many.

"The recent abuses by both sides and renewed fighting around Kidal underscores the urgent need for Malian soldiers and rebel combatants to respect the laws of war, minimise civilian harm, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees," said HRW's senior west Africa researcher Corinne Dufka.

"Civilians across the ethnic divide have already suffered enough."