Mali defends rights record against U.N. abuse statement

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Mali’s interim president defended the country’s rights record Tuesday against accusations by the United Nations that the military was guilty of atrocities against ethnic groups in the war-torn north.

Dioncounda Traore, on a visit to the neighboring west African state of Senegal, said reprisals highlighted by a UN mission to Mali were rare but vowed that those found guilty of abuses would be hunted down and prosecuted.

“I am not aware of so many abuses,” Traore told a media conference in the Senegalese capital Dakar, questioned about allegations against the Malian army.

“The media should not be echoing statements that do not correspond to reality” and reminiscent of “imaginary abuses”, he said after meeting Senegalese leader Macky Sall at the end of a two-day visit.

French forces launched a surprise intervention on January 11 in a bid to stop Al Qaeda-linked fighters who had controlled northern Mali since April 2012 from moving southward and threatening the capital Bamako.

Islamist groups have largely been driven out of the main cities in the north and are waging a guerrilla war against French, Malian and other troops seeking to help the government assert its control over the entire territory.

The Chadian army issued a statement late Tuesday saying six jihadists and one of its soldiers were killed in fighting in the Ifoghas Mountains in north Mali. The latest toll brings to 30 the number of Chadian soldiers killed in the operation.

Also on Tuesday the UN’s human rights body accused Malian soldiers of carrying out retaliatory attacks since the French involvement that appeared to target Tuareg and Arab communities, often conflated with jihadists.

The preliminary findings of a UN mission to Mali last month showed that groups apparently targeted by Malian soldiers “are perceived to be supportive of the armed groups” or retreating Islamists, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said.

“Those who remain in the country are afraid of being targeted not for what they have done, but for who they are,” she told diplomats at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

But Traore referred to abuses by the Al-Qaeda-linked groups in northern Mali from January through November 2012 highlighted in a separate UN report published ahead of the French-led intervention.

“We have seen foreigners violate, violate, cut off hands and feet. However, any person guilty of abuses will be held accountable before national or international courts,” Traore told the media conference in Dakar.

Meanwhile French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the UN was likely to vote next month on a peacekeeping force for Mali that could comprise up to 10,000 troops and be deployed in June.

“We will move from the current framework... to a new diplomatic set-up, a peacekeeping operation which would probably be voted in April and implemented two months later,” he told the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee.

The current African force AFISMA is composed of about 6,300 soldiers and is supposed to be taking over from French soldiers with Paris due to scale back operations in Mali next month.

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