BAMAKO: African forces have begun moving towards Mali's centre, the French Foreign Minister said, as pressure grows on Malian troops over summary killings and rights abuses in a French-led assault on al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The first troops from a UN-mandated African force aimed at replacing the French mission had ''already started to move towards central towns'', the Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said in Paris on Wednesday, adding the force had deployed ''far quicker than envisaged''.
Diabaly reclaimed from insurgents
Residents in Diabaly, Mali try to resume life after Islamist extremists are driven out by French troops, while fighting continues elsewhere.
He said 1000 troops from west African countries and Chad had already arrived in Mali, which has been split in two since April.
''The African force is deploying much faster than expected,'' Mr Fabius said. ''Obviously that poses a number of logistical difficulties, but I have to say that I have seen a very big effort by our African friends.''
A Malian defence official said 160 soldiers from Burkina Faso had arrived in Markala, 270 kilometres north of the capital, Bamako, to ''take up the baton from the French'' guarding a strategic bridge on the Niger River.
''They are already in place and could then go on to Niono and Diabaly'', two towns farther north, the source said, adding: ''After the French, it will be the Africans who are on the ground.''
Almost two weeks after France swept to Mali's aid to stop an Islamist advance on Bamako, reports have emerged of atrocities committed by Malian soldiers and growing fears of attacks among certain ethnic communities. The majority of the al-Qaeda-linked rebels are either Tuaregs or Arabs.
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said that in the central town of Sevare, at least 11 people were executed in a military camp, citing evidence from local researchers.
Credible reports also pointed to around 20 other executions in the same area where the bodies were dumped in wells or otherwise disposed of, the organisation said. The organisation called for an immediate independent inquiry to ''determine the scale of the abuses and to punish the perpetrators''.
Human Rights Watch said its investigators had spoken to witnesses of the executions of two Tuareg men in the village of Siribala, near Niono.
The French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, urged extreme ''vigilance'' against any abuses, saying the ''honour of the [Malian] troops is at stake''.
''We cannot accept any rights violations. The international community will face a very serious situation if [the intervention force] is identified with abuses,'' Mr Fabius said.