BAMAKO, MALI— Concern is growing for Malian civilians caught in the fighting in the north and central parts of the country. French and Malian forces are trying to dislodge al-Qaida linked rebels who have controlled northern Mali since April and who began a push south on January 9. Aid agencies say military security measures are restricting humanitarian access to combat zones. As fighting escalates, authorities are confronted by the question of how to protect civilians amid fears that the enemy is hiding among them.
Hannatou Bocoum made it to Bamako Saturday, 10 days after her town, Konna, became the first to fall to Islamist rebels in this most recent offensive. The town was later bombed by the French.
"There was bombing everywhere and so much heavy gunfire that it made the houses shake. It was difficult to leave….Many residents went across the river. After three days, I went to a nearby village. I waited there for three more days. The military would not let people out towards Mopti because they said rebels had used public transport to get in to Konna. After three more days, I was able to convince the military to take me to Mopti on a moto," Bocoum said.
Military checkpoints litter the road south to Bamako. The army has retaken Konna but has closed roads heading north from Mopti into rebel-held territory, fearing infiltration.
Moctar Mariko of the Malian Association for Human Rights says both sides must open a humanitarian corridor to allow aid to come in and people to get out.
"Civilians have the right to flee combat zones, to go look for food and medical care. Both the Malian military and the rebels need to accept to open this corridor and not drag this otherwise peaceful population into the fighting. They did not ask for this. …If this corridor is not opened, we are going to see inestimable losses among civilians and their belongings," Mariko said.
Rebels have cut cell phone links to parts of the occupied territory, like the city of Gao.
Displaced northerners, like Faty Toure in Bamako, haven't been able to reach family there for more than a week.
"We are worried how they are getting clean drinking water. Before the phones were cut, they told us they didn't have petrol to pump water. How are they going to get food and water? They will get sick drinking from the river," Toure said.
In the central west part of the country, French and Malian forces are restricting access to the town of Diabaly, which Islamists seized and then appear to have abandoned.
Malian army colonel Seibou Sokoba said it is hard to tell rebels and non-rebels apart.
"You know the war against Islamists is not easy. They have mixed in deep within the population and slowly, slowly certain elements of the population will adhere to their cause. That's what makes war difficult with these people," Sokoba said.
Human rights groups say that logic is leading to army abuses and revenge attacks against civilians, in particular against lighter-skinned Arab and Tuareg northerners, who are perceived to be rebel supporters.