From amputations to army reprisal, it's hell
FLORAL BAGENAL, BAMAKO
January 28, 2013 12:00AM
AFTER being dragged from his home, blindfolded, kicked, beaten and taunted, truck driver Solemon Trarre thought the worst of his ordeal as a prisoner of Islamist militants in Mali was over.
He was wrong.
They tied him to a chair on a patch of land in the city of Gao. Militants crowded round, shouting, "God is great", and firing guns in the air. Then one of them cut off his hand with a kitchen knife.
"I was screaming and crying with pain and there was a lot of blood," said Trarre, 25, last week in Bamako, the capital, recalling the "operation" he underwent in October.
Trarre is one of hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the north of the country and the brutal law of amputations and stonings imposed by jihadist rebels across a territory twice as big as Germany.
Their tales of atrocities committed under the black al-Qa'ida banner, and reports of hardship in northern cities deprived of supplies, have added urgency to a northward push by French forces to liberate the ancient cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
According to Omar Toure, 28, a teacher who fled Timbuktu two weeks ago, battle-hardened Islamist militants are preparing for a long fight in the desert.
"There are training camps where fighters practise and even children are taught to handle weapons," he said.
Toure said a friend caught kissing his girlfriend was punished with a public flogging by militants, whose northern enclave has become a magnet for jihadist fighters from all over North Africa.
They have banned smoking and music and are said to have destroyed countless centuries-old texts that were hidden in houses in Timbuktu's warren of dusty streets.
Communications with the city were cut off last week after heavy French airstrikes in the area.
The city, famous in the West as a synonym for somewhere far from anywhere, has had no water or power for days.
Aid agencies warn of a looming humanitarian crisis amid fears that northern cities will run out of food and medical supplies.
"We pray they (the French) will come soon," said a resident of Gao.
French and Malian government forces yesterday reached the town of Hombori, one of the three largest under militant control. Their advance raised hopes that Timbuktu could be liberated in weeks.
But satisfaction in Paris and Bamako with the speed of the French advance has been tempered by reports of human rights violations by the West's latest ally in the war against terror, the ill-equipped army of Mali.
Corinne Dufka, a senior investigator for Human Rights Watch, said it had two credible accounts of suspected Islamist sympathisers being lined up and shot by soldiers in towns recaptured by the government over the past two weeks.
"We're talking about a dangerous rule-of-law vacuum," she said.
Up to 35 people are believed to have been killed by Malian soldiers in the days just before and after the French intervention.
Residents in the cities of Mopti, Sevare and Niono reported seeing bodies hastily buried by soldiers.
In one incident on January 10, the day before French airstrikes began, people are said to have been shot near a bus station in Sevare and their bodies thrown down a well.
In another incident in Konna, witnesses said jubilant Malian troops, buoyed by the sudden shift of power in their favour, ransacked homes, looting money and phones and dragging off a preacher accused of fighting with the rebels.
"The soldiers surrounded the house of a marabout (Koranic teacher) suspected of helping the jihadists," said Mohamone Omar. "He was taken away and no one knows what happened to him. We were told he was shot."
Gunshots have been heard from inside military camps where prisoners are held.
Men have been arrested simply because they have beards in the Islamist style, reports said.
Police are also involved in the crackdown: a suspected Islamist sympathiser was reportedly shaved in a police station.
There are concerns about reprisals against Tuaregs - one of the ethnic groups associated with the rebellion in the north - by the Malian military and militia supporting the government.
The army's woeful lack of supplies was demonstrated in a film on YouTube that showed soldiers making shooting sounds in training exercises because they did not have any bullets.
Trarre hopes the French will swiftly rid the north of the Islamists who mutilated him for hiding weapons left by fleeing government soldiers.
"I hope they dig a huge hole and bury those bastards alive in it," he said.
The Sunday Times
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