French foreign legionnaires take position outside Marakala, central Mali, some 240kms (140 miles) from Bamako Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. French troops in armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets of Diabaly on Monday, winning praise from residents of this besieged town after Malian forces retook control of it with French help a week after radical Islamists invaded. The Islamists also have deserted the town of Douentza, which they had held since September, according to a local official who said French and Malian forces arrived there on Monday as well. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
DJENNE, Mali (AP) — Malian soldiers executed people accused of ties to radical Islamists at a bus stop around the time the French-led military intervention began, a witness told The Associated Press on Wednesday, detailing how the soldiers shot the victims and then threw their bodies into nearby wells.
The account from the witness, who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals, came the same day that a French human rights group accused Malian forces of dozens of "summary executions" and other abuses as they confront Islamic extremists.
"They gathered all the people who didn't have national identity cards and the people they suspected of being close to the Islamists to execute them and put them in two different wells near the bus station," he said.
The soldiers later poured gasoline in the wells and set the bodies ablaze, he said.
The man described seeing at least three people killed in the incident at the Sevare bus stop on Jan. 10, a day before the French launched their military offensive following a surge southward by the Islamists into the town of Konna.
The military blocked journalists from reaching the town of Sevare on Wednesday, expanding its security cordon all the way to the town of Djenne. Reporters trying to reach the area, including an Associated Press team, were turned away at checkpoints by soldiers, who cited the national state of emergency and concerns for the journalists' safety.
On Wednesday, the International Federation for Human Rights, or FIDH by its French acronym, called for the creation of an independent commission to look into the crimes and punish those responsible.
FIDH charged that Malian forces were behind about 33 killings — including of ethnic Tuaregs — since new fighting erupted Jan. 10 along the narrow belt between the government-controlled south and the north, which has been under the control of al-Qaida-linked militants for months.
Human rights groups have long expressed concerns about retaliatory violence against northern Malians or anyone seen as having ties to the Islamists whose capture of the north has divided the country in two.
The claims come as international backing continued to pour in for France's intervention in its former colony. Pentagon officials said a U.S. airlift of French forces to Mali is expected to continue for another two weeks. Hundreds of African soldiers from Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and Senegal are now joining.
Human rights groups have expressed concern about the situation in Mali — notably the activities of Malian troops. In a statement, FIDH pointed to "a series of summary executions" perpetrated by Malian forces notably in the towns of Sevare, Mopti, Niono and others along the lines of clashes.
In Sevare, at least 11 people were killed at a military camp, near its bus station and its hospital, and "credible information" pointed to about 20 other executions with the bodies "buried hastily, notably in wells," FIDH said.
Malian troops also killed two ethnic Tuaregs in the Niono region, and "other allegations of summary executions continue to come to us," the group said.
Dozens of ethnic Tuaregs in Bamako, Mali's capital far to the southwest, have had their homes raided by Malian forces, and at times been subjected to pillage and intimation, the group said.
All of the victims are accused of being infiltrators or of having ties to the jihadists, of possessing weapons, or of not being able to produce identity papers or "simply targeted because of their ethnicity," it said.
Asked about concerns of rights abuses by the Malian army, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said last week that protecting human rights and battling impunity was a priority for France, which "will do everything to stop violations of human rights across Mali."
The Islamist fighters have controlled the vast desert stretches of northern Mali, with the weak government clinging to the south, since a military coup in the capital in March last year unleashed chaos.
France launched its intervention on Jan. 11 — a day after Islamic extremists captured the central town of Konna, threatening a possible advance toward Bamako. France has said its forces will stay as long as necessary in Mali, but wants other African countries to the lead in helping Mali. Hundreds of African forces have been pouring in.
The U.S. Air Force is keeping between eight and 10 people at the airport in Mali's capital to help with the incoming and outgoing flights, the Pentagon said late Tuesday. The U.S. has already flown five C-17 flights into Bamako, delivering more than 80 French troops and 124 tons of equipment, it said.
The U.S. is not providing direct aid to the Malian military because the democratically elected government was overthrown last March in a coup.
French officials confirmed Tuesday that Malian forces, backed by French air power, retook the key towns of Diabaly and Douentza. Douentza had been held by Islamist rebels for four months and is located 195 kilometers (120 miles) northeast of Mopti, the previous line-of-control held by the Malian military in Mali's narrow central belt. French and Malian troops arrived in Douentza on Monday to find that the Islamists had retreated from it.
Diabaly, 195 kilometers (120 miles) west of Mopti, was retaken Monday after Islamist fighters who had seized it a week earlier fled amid French air strikes.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.