BAMAKO – Students with a particularly devout Muslim appearance in northern Mali are facing summary execution by Malian forces as French troops continue their airstrikes against Islamist rebels.
“I heard one of them say, ‘For the sake of God, don't kill me. I'm not the enemy, I'm just a student of the Qur’an,’” an eyewitness, who wanted to remain anonymous, told BBC Newsnight on Thursday, January 31.
“But one of the military guys said, ‘Don't listen to them, they're infiltrators’. They discussed what to do, then one said, ‘Fire!’ and they shot all three of them.
“They dragged them by their feet and threw them into a well.”
The anonymous eyewitness confirmed that he saw three Muslim students shot dead in a public place because they failed to show identity papers.
He added that the three men had their hands tied behind their backs and they were made to kneel on a patch of waste ground.
The following day he says he saw two more suspects - an old man and his son - shot in similar fashion.
The BBC found bloodstains on three wells in the area, confirming reports about throwing the dead bodies in the wells.
What appeared to be human bodies were clearly visible at the bottom of one, the BBC said.
France has deployed more than 3,500 ground forces in a lightning three-week campaign that has wrested control of northern Mali's towns from Islamist rebels in the north.
They said the troops targeted light-skinned Arab and Tuareg ethnic groups associated with the rebels.
Muslim students of the Qur’an and others with a particularly devout Muslim appearance also fear they may now be singled out for attack.
A student in the town of Mopti, Muhammad Barry, said he and others were now afraid to study the Koran outdoors for fear they might be arrested.
But he insisted that he and most other pious Muslims had no sympathy with the Islamist rebels.
The new revelations came as human rights groups said on Friday that the French-led offensive against Islamists in Mali had led to civilian deaths in airstrikes and ethnic reprisals by Malian troops.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, however, cited eyewitness reports of extrajudicial killings by Malian government soldiers of dozens of civilians in the central towns of Sevare and Konna.
“Neither the Malians nor the French took the required precautions to avoid hitting civilian targets,” Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty's lead researcher for West Africa, told a news conference in Bamako, Reuters reported on Friday, February 1.
“We've asked France and authorities in Bamako to open an independent investigation.”
US-based Human Rights Watch cited evidence that Malian soldiers executed at least 13 people suspected of collaborating with the Islamist rebels and forcibly 'disappeared' five others in Konna and the garrison town of Sevare, also in central Mali.
"Malian authorities have turned a blind eye to these very disturbing crimes," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"The Malian government should take immediate steps to investigate these abuses and bring those responsible to justice, irrespective of rank."
Mali, once regarded as a fine example of African democracy, collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president in March, leaving a power vacuum in the north that enabled rebels to take control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
Muslims make up more than 90 percent of Mali's nearly 12 million population.
The UN said an estimated 30,000 people had fled the latest fighting in Mali, joining more than 200,000 already displaced.
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