Dakar - The occupation of northern Mali by Al Qaeda-linked extremists who rode a Tuareg rebellion has heightened ethnic tensions and exposed Tuareg civilians to reprisals from loyalist tribes, a report said Thursday.
“The resurgence of armed conflict in January has been accompanied by an increase in ethnic tensions in Mali,” Human Rights Watch said.
A previously unknown captain, Amadou Sanogo, launched a coup on March 22 to oust President Amadou Toumani Toure's government only six weeks before an election which he was not planning to contest.
The move came amid mounting anger by soldiers at their rout by Tuareg separatists, who were slowly making headway in a fresh rebellion to conquer the north and declare independence for a homeland which they call Azawad.
The coup only made it easier for the rebels and their Islamist allies to seize control of an area larger than France.
However the unlikely alliance between the secular separatists and Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists quickly crumbled and the Tuareg were driven out of key positions, leaving the vast arid zone in the hands of extremists.
Some Malians blame the Tuareg for splitting the country and allowing Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to expand their ambit and create a narco-terrorist state where sharia violators are flogged, amputated or stoned.
“Tuareg civilians told Human Rights Watch they feared reprisals, primarily from several pro-government militias,” the report said.
Those militias have a few thousand members, mainly from the Songhai and Fulani tribes.
They are concentrated in camps in and around the town of Sevare, which lies in central Mali, 300 miles from the capital Bamako but just south of the dividing line with the Islamist-controlled north.
Since the first few weeks of the Tuareg rebellion's ill-fated offensive in January and February, there has been relatively little fighting in Mali, with the regular army in disarray and the interim authorities scrambling to secure a foreign intervention.
HRW said it had found that militia members were drawing up lists of Tuaregs who would be targeted for retaliation if pro-government forces were to retake the north.
One militiaman told the New York-based rights watchdog that among the obvious targets on the list were those who took up arms to join the Islamists, were involved in abuses against locals, looted or did business with the north's new rulers.
“Others have collaborated; cooking, encouraging our children to join up. Do they think we don’t know who they are?”, he said.
Tribal elders said the region had a history of peaceful ethnic coexistence but said that displaced northern government leaders were spreading dangerous rhetoric.
HRW urged Mali's new prime minister, Diango Cissoko, not to overlook that risk.
“Mali’s new prime minister needs to tackle an array of human rights problems, but an abusive military and rising ethnic tensions in the country should top the list,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at HRW. - Sapa-AFP