International human rights experts say the armed groups occupying northern Mali have committed war crimes, including rape and using children as combatants. And there is evidence of crimes by Malian soldiers too.
Human Rights Watch says separatist Tuareg rebels and other armed groups who have taken over northern Mali have abducted and raped women and girls, used children as combatants, and - in rampant looting - robbed communities of their very means of survival.
Among the scores of witnesses and victims human rights researchers spoke with in Mali was a 14-year-old girl who said she was gang-raped for four days by fighters with the Tuareg separatist group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA.
Corinne Dufka is Human Rights Watch’s senior Africa researcher.
“We noted a very worrying dynamic of abduction and sexual abuse by primarily the MNLA as well as the Arab militia," said Dufka. "I spoke with the witnesses to 17 abductions and then we spoke with either direct victims or with family members and friends who had direct knowledge of a number of girls being sexually abused as well.”
While tens of thousands of Malians have fled the occupied regions, people who remain say attacks on civilians continue.
This resident of Gao, who did not want her name used, said girls as young as 10 years old and pregnant and nursing women have been raped.
She says rapes are still happening. As we speak, she says, women and girls are being kidnapped and raped.
She says it is important that the world know the truth about the separatist Tuareg rebels.
She says the international community must understand that contrary to what the rebels say - that they are here for independence of northern Mali - they have come raping our women, raping our girls, looting every last thing we’ve got.
The Tuareg rebels, who for decades have mounted sporadic uprisings in a bid for autonomy, fought alongside Islamic militant groups in attacks on Mali’s north in recent months.
The New-York based Human Rights Watch says all of the armed groups have committed offenses. Ansar Dine, the Tuareg Islamic group seeking to enforce a radical interpretation of Sharia law across Mali, is reported to have carried out severe punishments, including slitting the throat of one man and cutting off the hand of another.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director with Human Rights Watch, says fallout from the latest violence could be dangerous, as some non-Tuaregs affected by the unrest in the north are talking revenge.
“They’re very keen to take revenge for the suffering that has been caused by the rebel groups in the north and are now organizing their own militias and some of their rhetoric is quite extreme," he said. "They feel like the Tuareg rebels have caused problems in the north for a long time and they want to go back and basically cleanse the north of Tuareg.”
There is an ethnic element also in crimes allegedly committed by members of the Malian army. Human Rights Watch says it found credible evidence that in the aftermath of the rebel sweep of the north, Malian soldiers carried out arbitrary detentions and summary executions of Tuaregs and other light-skinned people.
Corinne Dufka says the abuses by Malian soldiers could be a sign of things to come.
“We are concerned that some of these trends could continue as perhaps some of the militia groups engage in an operation against the north and we’ll be watching that," said Dufka. "We call on all sides to abide by international humanitarian law and ensure that those members of their respective militaries maintain discipline and are disciplined in case they do commit abuses.”
Human Rights Watch is calling on the Malian government to invite the UN human rights commission to monitor and investigate abuses in the north.
The International Criminal Court said on April 24th that it has been closely watching the situation in Mali since the latest rebellion broke and will make a decision soon on whether to examine further.