|Thousands of Malians have been displaced, first by the Libyan conflict, and now by Tuareg rebellion [GALLO/GETTY]
A Tuareg military offensive in northern Mali is causing a humanitarian and human rights crisis, with scores killed and thousands fleeing into neighbouring countries, rights group Amnesty International has said.
"This is the worst human rights crisis in northern Mali for 20 years," Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty researcher on West Africa, said in a statement released on Friday.
"The rule of law has been markedly absent in this part of the country for years, and the region could be plunged into chaos if the fighting continues."
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Friday that fighting had displaced at least 60,000 people inside Mali. The figure did not include other refugees who fled to neighbouring countries.
"As clashes continue in the north, the humanitarian situation of those displaced is getting worse amid a food crisis," the ICRC said in a statement.
"In northern Mali all those people who have abandoned their homes, their fields, who lost their cattle and their daily activities are at a loss," said Juerg Eglin, who heads the ICRC's delegation for Mali and Niger.
According to the ICRC about 22,000 people have fled to Niger due to the ongoing violence. The UN refugee agency said earlier on Friday that more than 44,000 people had fled to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Tuareg rebels, boosted by the return of those who had been fighting for the late Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, launched an offensive on January 17 and have attacked several northern towns as they demand autonomy for their nomadic desert tribe.
France on Monday condemned the extra-judicial killings of some 82 people in the town of Aguelhok, some 750km north-east of the capital Bamako, accusing the killers of adopting tactics similar to al-Qaeda.
The Malian army confirmed that soldiers and civilians had been summarily executed.
Amnesty said dozens of soldiers and fighters had been killed since in clashes between Malian troops and the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA).
The statement said photographs were circulated showing the corpses of Malian soldiers' with their hands tied behind their backs, but the MNLA says they were fabricated.
"In view of the contradicting stories about how the soldiers depicted in these images were killed, there is an urgent need for an independent and impartial inquiry into what happened," Mootoo said.
Amnesty said that during protests in Bamako at the beginning of February against government's handling of the conflict, Malian security forces "failed to prevent an angry mob from attacking homes and properties owned by Tuaregs and other ethnic groups".
This led thousands of Tuaregs and others, allegedly targeted because of their lighter skin colour, to flee Bamako.
"All reports indicate that the Malian security forces were unwilling or unable to protect the Tuareg population and others targeted when the Bamako protests turned violent. The authorities must take immediate measures to ensure that anyone at risk is granted protection," Mootoo said.
West African leaders meeting in Nigeria, meanwhile, urged the Tuareg rebels to "immediately" end their fresh offensive in northern Mali.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) closed a regional summit by voicing "deep concern" at the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in the Sahel region that stretches across Africa south of the Sahara.
"Calling for an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities by the rebels," the leaders in a final statement "ordered them to immediately surrender all occupied zones in" Mali.
They also urged the parties involved in the crisis to secure a peaceful end to the conflict through dialogue.
The summit ordered an urgent meeting of military chiefs from the 15-member ECOWAS bloc to review the "emerging security threats" in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea, which has been hit by rising piracy.