TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — Three suspected jihadists arrested in the days since the liberation of Timbuktu said Friday that Malian soldiers were torturing them with a method similar to waterboarding.
The three are being held in an earthen cell in what remains of the military camp in the town, which was freed this week by French and Malian soldiers after nearly 10 months under radical Islamist rule.
Their allegations came as French President Francois Hollande prepared to fly to Mali on Saturday, nearly four weeks after the French-led operation began in the vast West African country.
The three suspects, who were tied together with a turban and one handcuff, all acknowledged to The Associated Press having been members of the al-Qaida-linked group known as Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith.
"To force me to talk they poured 40 liters (85 pints) of water in my mouth and over my nostrils which made it so that I could not breathe anymore. For a moment I thought I was even going to die," said one of the men, who gave his name as Ali Guindo and said he was from a village near the central Malian town of Niono.
"I sleep in the cold and every night they come pour freezing water over me. "
All three prisoners described similar treatment. Their account could not be independently verified. Soldiers holding the three asked reporters to leave after initially allowing journalists to speak with them.
Army Col. Mamary Camara told reporters that the three were arrested by Malian forces in the town of Lere. He said one of the men was from Libya and was caught wearing a foreign military uniform.
The Libyan jihadist was visibly frightened, crouching in a corner of his cell. He gave the AP contradictory information about his background, first saying he was born in a Malian village but of Libyan descent.
Later, he said he was from Tripoli but has lived for years in Mali. He initially denied being part of Ansar Dine but later confirmed that he belonged to the movement though he denied having an important role.
The Malian military said that when he was arrested he was wearing a watch with a memory card inside that they said was used to communicate with other foreign jihadists.
The allegations of torture came as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released reports outlining other allegations of misconduct by the Malian military and Islamists over the last month.
Both groups said they had documented cases of Malian soldiers killing suspected Islamist supporters in Sevare on the eve of the French-led intervention. Human Rights Watch cited at least 13 killings, while Amnesty said the number could be two dozen.
Human Rights Watch said the witnesses described seeing soldiers at a bus station in Sevare interrogate passengers suspected of links to extremist groups. Those without proper identification were taken away, the witnesses said.
"Before the soldiers marched them off, many of the detained men frantically tried to find someone in the crowd at the bus station who could vouch for them and verify their identity," the HRW report said. "They were driven or marched to a nearby field, where they were shot and their bodies dumped into one of four wells."
The Associated Press had earlier reported killings of civilians by the Malian army in Sevare, with bodies dumped into a well.
The Malian government has promised to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by its soldiers.
Friday's reports also alleged abuses by the Islamists. Human Rights Watch said Islamist rebels had killed at least seven Malian soldiers.
"One begged for his life saying, 'Please, in the name of God.' But they held him down and slit his throat," a witness told HRW. "Two days later, as we picked up the dead soldiers to bury them, the Islamists saw that five of them were still living. Most were gravely wounded, but they were still breathing and should have been given a chance to live. Instead the Islamists killed them — one after the other."
Meanwhile, back in France, Hollande told reporters the purpose of his trip is to boost troop morale, encourage Africans to join an international force for the area, and push Malian leaders to enter a political dialogue. France has said that it eventually wants to hand over responsibility for the mission to the Malian army and other African counterparts.