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THE HAGUE: The International Criminal Court yesterday opened a war crimes probe on Mali, where French troops are fighting Islamist rebels who have been occupying half the country since April last year.
“Different armed groups have caused havoc and human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence,” the Hague-based court’s Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement. “I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes.”
The probe will focus on crimes committed in rebel-held northern Mali, where “there is still turmoil... and populations continue to be at risk of yet more violence and suffering,” she said.
Bensouda in July last year ordered a preliminary probe into reports of terrifying atrocities committed in Mali to see if the criteria for a fuller investigation were met. She said her office believed there were sufficient grounds for “further action”, and identified potential cases of atrocities in the impoverished west African state, which has effectively been split in two by the conflict.
Potential charges included murder, rape, mutilation, torture and summary execution, Bensouda said, though a situation report issued by her office said there was currently no evidence that crimes against humanity had been committed in Mali. The report also said investigators had “an indication of those persons and groups who appear to bear responsibility for the alleged crimes”.
It mentioned the execution of between 70 and 153 detainees in the small northeastern desert town of Aguelhok. Up to 90 cases of rape were reported in different locations at the end of March and beginning of April.
“The imposition of severe punishments and the destruction of religious buildings in Timbuktu and other areas in the north followed,” Bensouda said. In July, when Bensouda announced a preliminary probe, she said the destruction of Muslim shrines in Timbuktu inscribed on UnescoO’s list of World Heritage sites may also constitute war crimes. The Islamists who seized the ancient city considered the saints’ tombs idolatrous. Mali ratified the ICC’s founding document, the Rome Statute, in 2000.
Rights groups welcomed Bensouda’s announcement, with Human Rights Watch saying it sent an “important message to all forces including separatist rebels, Islamist fighters, government soldiers, and foreign troops that serious human rights abuses will not go unpunished.”
Amnesty said Tuareg and Islamist insurgents are accused of torturing and killing Malian soldiers, raping women and girls and recruiting child soldiers, while Malian forces allegedly executed Tuareg civilians, shelled a nomadic camp and killed Tuareg livestock, crucial for their survival.
So far 144,500 refugees have fled the unrest in Mali to neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, UN humanitarian agencies said, while another 230,000 are internally displaced.
French and Malian troops engaged in close combat with Islamist rebels yesterday, battling insurgents in the small town of Diabaly some 400km north of Bamako. The Islamists, who controlled an area larger than France, have fled many of their strongholds since the French army launched its assault last Friday.
Western countries had voiced fears the vast desert zone could become Al Qaeda’s leading global safe haven and be used to launch attacks on targets in Europe.
Paris has received backing from several major Western countries including Germany, Belgium, Britain and Canada, which have offered planes or troop transporters, while Italy also offered logistical support. AFP