, Mali, Feb 13 – Mali risks descending into “catastrophic” violence, the UN rights chief has warned, after a string of attacks by Islamist rebels increased the pressure on French-led forces in the west African nation.
After four days of suicide bombings and guerrilla fighting in the northern city of Gao, fears of fresh attacks were high following a call from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for a holy war.
UN rights chief Navi Pillay warned against reprisal attacks by the Malian army and black majority on light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs accused of supporting the Islamist rebels.
“As the situation evolves, attacks and reprisals risk driving Mali into a catastrophic spiral of violence,” Pillay told the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
“Protection of human rights is key to stabilising the situation,” she added.
Rights campaigners have accused Malian troops of killing suspected rebel supporters and dumping their bodies in wells.
Some black Malians have turned on their Tuareg and Arab neighbours in northern towns recaptured from the Islamists. And in Timbuktu last week, a grave containing several Arabs’ bodies was discovered.
Many Arabs and Tuaregs have already fled the north, fearing reprisals.
A total of 377,000 people have fled their homes, including 150,000 who have sought refuge across Mali’s borders, according to the UN.
Mali imploded after a coup on March 22 last year by soldiers who blamed the government for the army’s humiliation at the hands of north African Tuareg rebels, who have long complained of being marginalised by Bamako.
With the capital in disarray, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north.
Analysts say the crisis has been fuelled by a complex interplay of internal tensions and international factors, including Al-Qaeda’s call to global jihad.
Those concerns were underlined Tuesday when AQAP, Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, condemned France’s intervention as a “Crusader campaign against Islam” and called all Muslims to join a holy war against it.