World Bulletin / News Desk
Human rights groups said on Friday that a French-led offensive against insurgents in Mali had led to civilian deaths in airstrikes and to ethnic reprisals by Malian troops, a day before President Francois Hollande was due to visit the country.
France has deployed more than 3,500 ground forces in a lightning three-week campaign that has wrested control of northern Mali's towns.
The aim is to prevent the fighters from using Mali's ungoverned desert north to launch attacks on neighbouring African countries and the West.
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.
They said the troops targeted light-skinned Arab and Tuareg ethnic groups associated with the rebels. The Malian military has denied any reprisal killings by its soldiers and the government in Bamako has publicly warned against revenge attacks.
Amnesty also reported that at least five civilians - including a mother and her three children - were killed by a helicopter rocket attack on the morning of Jan. 11 in Konna, seized by the fighters in an offensive two days earlier.
"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. "We've asked France and authorities in Bamako to open an independent investigation."
In response, France said it did not begin its military intervention in Mali until the afternoon of Jan. 11 and its helicopters did not target any area inside the town of Konna.
The Malian army has two Hind Mi24 attack helicopters but it is not clear if they are operational.
The allegations of rights abuses came as Paris confirmed Hollande would visit Mali on Saturday, accompanied by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Hollande would meet Mali's Interim President Dioncounda Traore in the southern, riverside capital Bamako before travelling up to Timbuktu to greet French troops, an Elysee diplomatic source told Reuters.