BAMAKO Former parliament speaker Dioncounda Traore took over as Mali's interim president on Thursday from the leaders of last month's coup, promising to hold elections and fight Tuareg and Islamist rebels occupying half the country.
Traore, 70, a labor activist turned politician, was sworn in by Supreme Court President Nouhoum Tapily in the capital Bamako as part of a deal to restore civilian rule after army officers staged a March 22 coup in the West African state.
The coup shattered predominantly Mulsim Mali's image as one of the most peaceful and stable states in the region.
Triggered by army anger over the previous civilian government's failure to tackle a Tuareg-led rebellion in the north, it backfired spectacularly, allowing the rebels to advance and declare a northern separatist homeland. Al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters are among the occupying rebels.
With residents and U.N. rights experts reporting killings, rapes and looting on the rise in rebel-seized northern towns, there are fears of the vast northern territory becoming a lawless and destabilizing "rogue state" in West Africa.
"We will never negotiate the partition of Mali," Traore said in his inauguration speech in which he promised to organize "free and transparent elections over the whole of the national territory".
Former President Amadou Toumani Toure, deposed by last month's coup, formally resigned to facilitate the transition deal with the coup leaders.
"I am president of a country that loves peace," Traore said, wearing the presidential sash over a dark suit.
But he added: "I will not hesitate to wage a deadly and implacable war against the rebels and the hostage-takers who discredit our country". This was a clear reference to al Qaeda fighters who have held Western hostages in northern Mali.
But despite his brave words, there are no immediate signs that Mali's army, weakened by last month's putsch, is readying any significant offensive against the rebels whose ranks were swelled by arms and Tuareg soldiers who had served slain Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The 15-state ECOWAS grouping of West African countries, which pressured the Bamako coup leaders to give up power, is preparing an intervention force of up to 3,000 troops. But it has said its mandate is to prevent any further rebel advances rather than win back the lost territory.
Former colonial power France has offered logistical support but ruled out sending troops.
CIVILIANS "KILLED, ROBBED, RAPED"
As Traore was sworn in the southern capital Bamako, confusion reined over which factions of the diverse rebel movement were controlling what strategic locations in the fabled desert trading city of Timbuktu and the garrison town of Gao.
There have been reports of Islamist rebels seeking to apply sharia law among the local population, shutting down bars and ordering women to cover their heads. Other reports have spoken of looting and gun-toting, turban-wearing fighters roaming the streets, forcing many non-Tuaregs to flee the north.
The top U.N. human rights official, Navi Pillay, condemned reported serious violations being committed against civilians in Mali, and said the situation there risked worsening a grave humanitarian crisis already affecting the drought-plagued Sahel region, as thousands of refugees flee the rebels.
"Reports from the north of the country suggest that civilians have been killed, robbed, raped and forced to flee," Pillay said in a statement released by her office in Geneva.
Pillay added that while the reports were confused, "a variety of different rebel groups have been accused of looting private and public property, including hospitals and health care facilities."
She said that human rights violations, including illegal arrests, poor conditions of detention and attempts to restrict the right to freedom of expression, have also been reported in Bamako in the wake of the military takeover.
Separatist leaders have declared a secular Tuareg homeland of "Azawad" in an area bigger than France in northern Mali - a secession bid so far snubbed by the world.
Those separatist rebels have distanced themselves from their Islamist comrades-in-arms, who, for their part, reject secession and say they want to apply sharia across all of Mali.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Mark John; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)