Jihadists aligned with the Islamic State group are advancing in northeastern Mali, prompting terrified citizens to flee their homes, sources there say.
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) launched an offensive in the Gao and Menaka regions in March, triggering heavy fighting with local armed groups and rival jihadists.
"If nothing is done, the whole region will be occupied" by jihadis, a human rights campaigner, contacted by AFP on WhatsApp, said on the condition of anonymity.
Witnesses and other sources contacted by AFP confirmed the sustained ISGS push in this remote and dangerous area, and rights campaigners say civilians have been massacred.
The strategic towns of Gao and Menaka have long been in the forefront of Mali's decadelong jihadi crisis.
Since 2012, thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, in an insurgency that has spread to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Despair at the toll prompted Malian army officers to mount a coup in 2020.
The junta has brought in Russian paramilitaries — a move that prompted France to pull out troops who had been battling jihadists for nine years.
Outside the two towns, the region is largely desert, populated mainly by nomads.
They bore the brunt of clashes between pro-independence Tuaregs and the Malian army between 2012 and 2015. They are now caught in the crossfire between the ISGS on the one side and a motley array of armed groups on the other.
The latter comprise al-Qaida jihadis; pro-independence fighters who signed up to a peace deal with the government in 2015; and pro-government Tuareg combatants who had previously fought the pro-independence groups.
The U.N. and NGOs have reported repeated attacks against communities accused of abetting the enemy or refusing to join the jihadists.
Hundreds of villagers have died in massacres by ISGS fighters, Human Rights Watch said last month.
Eleven were killed Monday in a raid by gunmen on motorbikes on a camp for displaced people at Kadji, just outside Gao, local officials and humanitarian workers told AFP.
Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, head of the loyalist Movement for the Safety of Azawad, said a "climate of terror" prevailed.
"All economic life has come to a halt. The roads have been destroyed," he said.
"[It's] an unprecedented humanitarian crisis," he said, adding that the town of Menaka was being swamped by displaced people.
A mayor in the Menaka administrative region said that in his district, "there's nobody left."
A U.N. document issued this month said that in the town of Gao, nearly 60,000 people had arrived.
Several sources said that the jihadis had moved into a vacuum left when France pulled its forces out of the region.
The border with neighboring Niger marks the limit of the fighting.
Niger's army is being supported in the air and on the ground by foreign forces, including France's Barkhane mission.
On the Malian side, the army has holed up in the town of Menaka, a tactic that leaves "the way open" for the jihadis, a local elected official — who has fled to Bamako — told AFP.
He and others painted a gruesome picture of life in areas under jihadi control.
"If you're not with them, you're against them," the official said.
Villages seized by the militants must pay an Islamic tax and submit to a brutal interpretation of Islamic law.
An aid worker in Ansongo said that in the village of Tin-Hama, an unmarried couple aged 50 and 36 were stoned to death in September.
"They dug a hole on weekly market day and placed [them] ... in it up to their hips and then threw rocks at them," the source said.
Pro-government forces are trying to muster outside help for their cause, a security source in Niger said.
One idea is to forge an alliance with the former rebels of the Coordination of Azawad Movements and the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), a shadowy group led by an al-Qaida-linked Tuareg, Iyad Ag Ghali.
But the chances of creating a joint front are low, an African diplomat in Bamako said.
"Politically, it would seem quite a stretch for people to team up openly with al-Qaida today," the diplomat said.