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As Hollande takes victory lap, abuses surface in Mali

French President Francois Hollande and his defense and foreign ministers will arrive in Bamako, Mali, tomorrow to mark the country's military victory over an Islamist-backed insurgency. But the French leader's victory lap is being marred by reports of brutal reprisal attacks by his Malian allies.

Senior French officials are voicing increasing alarm about reported abuses by Malian troops, saying they have made several formal requests to Malian authorities to rein in troops accused of summarily executing suspected insurgents.

"We are really, really worried about the situation and we are doing our utmost to avoid human rights violations," Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, told reporters. For many Malians, he said, "the sprit is not reconciliation but revenge."

The French government, he added, has instructed its troops to prevent violent reprisals by Malians soldiers against civilians, and appealed to the United Nations to deploy human rights monitors on the ground in Mali.

The French envoy's remarks follow the publication on Thursday of a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, claiming that Malian troops summarily executed at least 13 men in Konna and Sevare, while insurgents killed at least seven Malian soldiers, including five who were injured. The rights group expects the scale of killing is even higher.

The episode highlighted the challenges for the French and other supporters in ensuring that its military intervention in Mali does not become marred by reports of abuses by its Malian allies. Hollande's visit is intended to highlight French military successes against the Islamists, who have fled key towns they had captured during the past year, including Gao, Kidal, and the tourist outpost of Timbuktu.

Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch's U.N. representative, and his colleagues visited the towns of Konna and Sevare, where they found three recently murdered corpses in a water well, executed in broad daylight by Malian troops, according to local witnesses. The rights advocates also paid a visit to a nearby police station, Bolopion recalled today in an interview with Turtle Bay.

"Do you know there are bodies of dead people in the well?" Bolopion and his companions asked the local police chief, who refused to provide his name. "Yes," he answered. "I think I've seen something in the press."

Informed that he could see the crimes for himself if he simply walked 300 meters from his office, the official declined, saying he would need instructions from his superior. "I think the whole town knows what happened, the military knows what happened, and nobody is investigating," Bolopion said. "They killed over a dozen people, most of them in broad daylight in the middle of the town, a few hundred meters from the gendarmerie."

Bolopion also said that Human Rights Watch is investigating a claim that a woman and three children were killed by a helicopter strike at their home in Konna.

The French government has informed the rights group that it was not flying at the time the attack allegedly occurred. Bolopion said the group is currently trying to establish whether the Mali army has an operational attack helicopter.

Bolopion said that the French government has made some "good statements" underscoring the need to respect human rights, but he said he would like to see France and other outside powers apply greater pressure on Mali to investigate alleged abuses by their troops. "They hold much sway over Mali's military authority and so they should be able to get them to investigate in Sevare," he said. He also said he would like to see France, which has a presence in Sevare, help secure crime scenes and protect evidence for a possible investigation by the International Criminal Court.

In an interview with France Radio Inter last Thursday, Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian, said there are limits to what France can do. "It's not our responsibility to maintain order in the towns; there are mayors, the mayors have returned to Gao and Timbuktu; the Malian authorities, the institutions are returning. So it's important for the Malian army, the Malian gendarmerie to ensure there are no acts of violence or reprisals, which people may be very tempted to carry out. I know orders have been given, they must be obeyed. We're very vigilant about that, and we'd also like United Nations observers to be able to ensure things are going properly in the towns we and the Malian forces have recaptured."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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