As Malian forces backed by French and African troops have retaken the West African nation's contested northern region, there have been allegations of human rights abuses. Human Rights organizations accuse the Malian army of summary executions, among other abuses.
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French President Francois Hollande spent Saturday in Mali where he received a hero's welcome. Malians thanked him for the French forces who helped fight back Islamists linked to al-Qaida in northern Mali. French and Malian forces have reclaimed the area, including the ancient city of Timbuktu. But as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, there are still significant challenges to peace.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: The United Nations, the International Criminal Court and rights' campaigners all are sounding the alarm about alleged rights' violations in Mali perpetrated by both the army and the Islamists. And now, the presidents of both Mali and France are also expressing concern.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)
PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Jubilant crowds in Timbuktu and here in Bamako gave President Francois Hollande a hero's welcome. His visit comes days after Malian and French forces liberated major cities in the north from al-Qaida-linked militants who captured the vast desert region last spring and imposed harsh Islamic law. But the French leader is warning Mali that now is the time for justice and not vengeance.
HOLLANDE: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Hollande says there must be respect for human rights and an end to looting and revenge attacks.
PRESIDENT DIONCOUNDA TRAORE: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, is pledging there will be no reprisals. But rights' groups, including Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch, say there already have been many abuses.
CORINNE DUFKA: There has been a pattern of very serious violations since the beginning of this war, indeed by all sides.
QUIST-ARCTON: Corinne Dufka is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
DUFKA: The Islamist forces have been involved in the execution of Malian soldiers. Also, they have been using children as young as 11 or 12. On the part of the army, we found that they have been involved in some very serious violations in central Mali in and around the garrison town of Sevare. We documented the execution of 13 suspected Islamist collaborators in Sevare town. And we have urged the Malian government as well as the international forces supporting this military operation - the French, the Americans, the European Union and others - to send an unequivocal message to the Malian forces that these abuses must stop before they get any worse - and for those who have been involved to be held accountable.
QUIST-ARCTON: Dufka warns that months of upheaval and occupation have heightened ethnic tensions and put Mali's minorities at risk. Many of the militants who seized territory in northern Mali last year come from the Arab and Tuareg ethnic groups. Northerners living in central and southern Mali say they have been targeted by the army, which is dominated by southerners.
LALLA OUM MINT MAULAYE ATYOMBE: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Lalla oum mint Maulaye Atyombe is visibly upset. She's a light-skinned Malian Arab trader from Timbuktu who has taken refuge here in Bamako. She says anyone who looks Arab or Tuareg faces discrimination and reprisals from soldiers and civilians.
ATYOMBE: (Foreign language spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: We're not all terrorist rebels and militants, she laments. I'm 100 percent Malian. In liberated zones in the north, Arab and Tuareg shops and properties have been looted by Malians who say they collaborated with the departed jihaddis.
Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch is alarmed.
DUFKA: There is an extremely high level of ethnic tension here, and these reprisals could indeed get worse. The Malian government have to act responsibly and bring their own forces under control as well as ensure that they protect all Malians, irrespective of their ethnic group.
QUIST-ARCTON: As thousands of refugees and displaced people head back home to the north, human rights' advocates fear they may become targets simply because of the color of their skin or the belief that they may have links to the rebel or insurgent groups. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.