BAMAKO Rights groups on Friday accused Mali's army and Tuareg separatist rebels of torturing and killing civilians despite the presence of France's military, hours before peace talks between the two sides were due to begin.
Amnesty International said a month-long research mission to Mali found the army had tortured dozens of people suspected of collaborating with the MNLA Tuareg rebels or Islamist groups which seized control of north Mali early last year.
It documented more than 20 cases of extra-judicial executions and arbitrary killings by the army and the MUJWA Islamist group in northern Mali.
Amnesty said the bodies of Mohamed Lemine and Mohamed Tidjani had been discovered days after they were arrested by the Malian security forces on January 28, the day Malian forces retook the town of Timbuktu.
The group also said it had spoken to more than 80 detainees in Bamako. Many said they had been tortured or denied medical treatment, and some had scars of burnings and cuts on their backs, chests and ears.
A French-led military campaign launched in January broke the grip of a loose Islamist coalition, including MUJWA and al Qaeda's North African arm AQIM, over the desert region, where the militants had imposed harsh sharia Islamic law.
Amnesty's report voiced concern that soldiers from France and a West African regional force (AFISMA) handed prisoners to the Malian authorities knowing there was a risk they would be tortured or ill-treated.
"The Malian security forces' human rights record since January is, simply, appalling. They continue to violate human rights with apparently no fear of being held accountable," said Amnesty researcher Gaëtan Mootoo.
"Ensuring that all those responsible for human rights abuses face justice will not be an easy task but it's the key to a lasting stabilization and rebirth of a country torn apart for more than 18 months," Mootoo said.
Mali's interim government is organizing a presidential election for July 28 to turn the page on a military coup last year triggered by the Tuareg uprising. However, the MNLA maintains its grip over the remote northeastern city of Kidal.
Negotiators for the Malian government, the MNLA and the HCUA Tuareg umbrella group were due to open talks in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, Ougadougou, on Friday to discuss conditions for the elections to go ahead in Kidal.
Tensions have been raised by mutual accusations of rights abuses. The Malian army has pledged to reenter Kidal before the vote and was moving towards the last rebel stronghold this week.
Mali's chief negotiator, Tiebile Drame, said on Thursday he was confident of reaching a deal by a June 10 deadline.
Human Rights Watch said MNLA fighters had arbitrarily detained around 100 people on June 1 and 2, most of them from non-Tuareg ethnic groups. Witnesses said they were robbed, threatened and in several cases severely beaten.
"The recent abuses by both sides and renewed fighting around Kidal underscores the urgent need for Malian soldiers and rebel combatants to respect the laws of war," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch called on Malian authorities to accelerate deployment of police and Justice Ministry personnel throughout the north to deter abuses by government soldiers.
One truck driver told Human Rights Watch that MNLA fighters robbed him of about 300,000 CFA francs (US$600) and took him to a detention centre where he and several others were beaten.
"They hit me with the butts of their guns until I could no longer walk," HRW quoted him as saying, adding that one of his ribs was broken. He said that MNLA fighters told him: "You blacks, Kidal is not for you. It is for us."
(Writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Andrew Roche)