As the Malian army prepares to advance on the northern rebel-held town of Kidal, reports by two international human rights groups are condemning what they say are serious and recent abuses by both the Malian army and Tuareg separatist group, the MNLA. Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns that violations could intensify if fresh fighting breaks out for Kidal. Regionally mediated negotiations between Mali's government and the MNLA are scheduled to begin Friday to try to find a peaceful solution to the crisis ahead of nationwide elections set for July 28.
The Malian army seized the northern town of Anefis from the MNLA on June 5th and says it is preparing to march on Kidal, the last northern town not to return to government control since the start of the French-led military intervention in January.
Anefis marked the first fighting between the army and the MNLA in more than a year.
A catalyst for the army's push north was the reported detention in Kidal of more than 100 men from darker-skinned ethnic groups on June 1st and 2nd.
Human Rights Watch Senior West Africa researcher Corinne Dufka says HRW spoke to seven of those detainees.
"All of them describe being beat up, robbed," Dufka said. "And then several of them had been detained in what they described as a government building. It wasn't really a formal detention center. Several of them described racial slurs against their ethnicity."
The MNLA said it was looking for spies working for the Malian army and only wound up holding 20 men and expelling others from Kidal.
HRW's Dufka said "ethnic tensions remain high" and could intensify if the army advances on Kidal and as refugees continue to return home to the north.
Human Rights Watch says it also has documented a wave of abuses by Malian soldiers against at least 24 people since early May, primarily in the Mopti region. Dufka said most of the victims were from the Tuareg and Bella ethnic groups and had been sought for questioning on suspicion of rebel involvement.
"They brutally beat them at the time of detention and in the course of transferring them from their villages, and towns and nomadic camps north of Mopti down to the gendarmerie in Segou and Niono. … They were beaten and choked to the point of several of them having lost consciousness. Others were tied to trees and then beaten whilst in that position," Dufka said. "One of them described his back being torn. Once they were in the custody of the gendarmerie, they reported having been treated very well. They received some medical attention and some food."
Dufka said the abuses are "not systematic" and appear to be the work of undisciplined soldiers. She said HRW documented some cases of Malian officers trying to stop abuse in progress.
Mali's army spokesman has denied accusations of wrongdoing by soldiers.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International says it has documented torture and more than 20 forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings by Malian security forces of primarily Arab and Tuareg civilians since the start of the French-led military intervention in January.
In the report of its preliminary findings on abuses over the past five months, Amnesty says that Malian authorities have opened investigations into some alleged abuses.
Amnesty says it is particularly concerned over the conditions and treatment of detainees being held in connection with the conflict.
Amnesty says detainees at Bamako's Central Prison reported being tortured and denied medical treatment. Amnesty says at least five detainees died at that prison in April.
Local media reported in April that Mali's military spokesman said three Tuareg detainees had died at that prison.
Both HRW and Amnesty International are calling on all sides to respect the laws of war, protect civilians and ensure proper treatment of detainees.