JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Mali is confronting its worst challenges since independence in 1960, including a severe humanitarian emergency, human rights abuses committed by government troops and rebel militias, and international isolation after a military coup two months ago, Amnesty International said in a report released Wednesday.
The report said the West African nation, a beacon of stability for 20 years but now in the control of armed groups, faces an uncertain future. It called for steps to protect human rights and restore democracy.
The report, written by the London-based organization's researcher on West Africa, Gaetan Mootoo, and others, found that serious human rights abuses were being committed by all sides in the country's conflicts. The combatants include the Malian army, the fighters led by Amadou Sanogo, who carried out the coup in March, and the Tuareg and Islamic rebels in the north.
"Mali is facing, since the beginning of the year, the worst crisis that the country has known
since its independence in 1960," the report said. "The entire north of the country has been taken over by armed groups. Ten of thousands of people have fled the region, creating a humanitarian crisis
in southern Mali and in neighboring countries.
"Moreover," the report continued, "the military coup of March 2012 in Bamako [the capital] has set back almost 20 years of peaceful political changes through elections and has isolated the country internationally."
About 190,000 people fled to other countries and another 130,000 to southern Mali as rebels advanced through the north in March and April, taking advantage of the coup in the south. The refugee crisis has exacerbated an already severe food shortage in the broader Sahel region caused by drought and poor harvests, which is affecting about 16 million people. About 1 million children in the Sahel face acute malnutrition because of the regional food crisis, according to humanitarian agencies.
Amnesty International said the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Islamists of the Ansar Dine were implicated in serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary killings, widespread rapes and use of child soldiers.
"They took me into the bushes and raped me," one 16-year-old girl from the town of Gao told Amnesty researchers. "I stayed there two days. During that period, I was raped several times.”
A mother from the town of Gao told Amnesty International: "I saw children even younger then my own
[ages 14 and 16] armed and going around in cars. Others were posted at the entrance and exit of the town, on the checkpoints."
Tuareg and Islamic fighters tortured captured soldiers and then cut their throats, according to soldiers who managed to escape, the report said, adding that army soldiers also executed unarmed people who were accused of being spies for the rebels.
The report also criticized Ansar Dine rebels for beating or killing people who opposed its imposition of a fundamentalist form of Sharia law in the towns it controls, including Timbuktu.
The group looted, burned and closed schools and ordered teachers to go home, according to the report. It forced women to wear Islamic garments and banned them from sitting near men on buses or walking with them. Ansar Dine fighters warned that any unmarried men and women found talking, walking or holding hands would be arrested and punished.
Accused thieves were killed, men found drinking were lashed, and nightclubs closed, witnesses told Amnesty International.
The report comes a day after Ansar Dine prevented a humanitarian convoy with tons of food and medical supplies from entering Timbuktu, the first convoy since the city was seized.
Photo: Islamist fighters of Ansar Dine on April 24 near Timbuktu in rebel-held northern Mali. Credit: Romaric Ollo Hien / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images