The International Criminal Court (ICC)
has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes in Mali.
In a statement Wednesday, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she has determined that some "deeds of brutality and destruction" committed in Mali may constitute war crimes.
She says there is reasonable basis to believe the crimes include murder, torture, attacking protected objects, illegal executions and rape.
The investigation comes after human rights groups voiced concern about alleged abuses in northern Mali, which is controlled by Islamist militant groups.
Corinne Dufka, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the rights group has documented the recruitment and use of several hundred children by the Islamists since last April.
She says over the past week, witnesses have reported seeing children as young as 11 taking part in fighting between the militants and French and Malian forces.
"I have conducted numerous telephone interviews with residents, primarily in the Gao region who have described the presence of children at checkpoints, with the Islamist groups, as they have attacked some of the towns as well as children, wounded children, who have come in for treatment in Gao," said Dufka.
She says in some instances, the children appear to have been recruited along with older brothers or their parents.
Amnesty International notes that Islamist groups were previously accused of killing and brutalizing people who violated the militants' strict version of Islamic law.
The group's Salvatore Sagues told VOA that Islamist militants have carried out their own versions of law and justice.
"They imposed their own interpretation of Islam, flogging couples, for example, who had sexual relationships without being married," he said. "They stoned to death a couple, unmarried, who had a child. They amputated several people accused of theft without any trial. They destroyed cultural buildings."
The group says another problem is that Islamic armed groups are intermingled with civilians in the north, a development that puts civilians at risk during French bombing raids.
The ICC says based on information gathered to date, its investigation will focus on alleged crimes committed in three northern regions of Mali.