The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has received reports of horrific abuses being committed in Mali, and it anticipates up to 700,000 more people will be forced to flee their homes in the next few months because of violence there.
UNHCR staff members are relaying stories of “witnessed executions and amputations,” and tales of large offers of money to civilians who will fight against the French-backed Malian army and its supporters, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on Friday.
Reports of the use of child soldiers among the rebel groups, and disappeared family members, also are surfacing, she said.
The accounts were recounted by some of the 265 Malian refugees who crossed into Burkina Faso in the past several days from Intahaka, N’Tillit and Dorage towns, and surrounding areas in the Gao region of northern Mali.
The refugees said they had fled due to the recent military intervention, the lack of any means of subsistence and fear of the strict application of Islamic law, Fleming said.
Leaders from the Economic Community Of West African States are meeting in Ivory Coast on Saturday to discuss the international response to the conflict in Mali.
Francois Hollande, France’s president, authorised French intervention in the country after fighters, mainly from the Ansar al-Dine group, began progressing towards Bamako from their northern stronghold.
The rebels seized the region in April 2012 amid the unrest that followed a coup in Bamako.
Since the French intervention and the intensification of fighting there has been a surge in new and chilling cases of alleged abuses.
“We have been hearing horrific accounts from refugees in the neighbouring countries,” Fleming said.
“They reported having witnessed executions and amputations, and mentioned that large amounts of money are being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian army and its supporters.”
The agency is planning for the additional displacement of up to 300,000 people inside Mali and 407,000 more refugees flowing into neighbouring countries.
It is urgently reinforcing its teams across the region, she said, as thousands more refugees flee to Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Guinea and Togo.
Already during 2012, about 200,000 people fled their homes in northern Mali and are on the move within the country, while 144,500 Malians fled to neighbouring countries because of instability, the agency says.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, said on Friday that Paris had increased its troop numbers by 400 in a single day, from 1,400 on Thursday to 1,800, “and the progress on our presence on the ground continues”.
France plans to deploy 2,500 soldiers in the country.
Some Pentagon officials and military officers warn that without more aggressive US action, Mali could become a haven for “extremists,” akin to Afghanistan before the attacks of September 11, 2001, The Los Angeles Times has said.
But many top White House aides say it is unclear whether the Mali rebels could threaten the US, the paper said.
Those aides worry about being drawn into a messy conflict against an elusive enemy just as US forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, it noted.
“No one here is questioning the threat that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb poses regionally,” the paper quoted one administration official as saying.
“The question we all need to ask is, what threat do they pose to the US homeland? The answer so far has been none.”