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.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, former prime minister, is picked to succeed leaving Laurent Fabius
The main opposition party's foreign affairs spokesman says union gives Britain 'louder voice' in world
Foreign Minister Lavrov says Russia has made a 'quite specific' proposal and is waiting for US to respond before submitting it to International Syria Support Group
'Kurdistan is part of Iraq and I hope it will remain so,' says premier Haider al-Abadi
Opposition lawmaker condemns 'shameful' asylum system as Britain prepares to accept Syrian orphans
PM Matteo Renzi continues his harsh criticism of Brussels
'We agreed in principle to use NATO AWACS surveillance planes to backfill national AWACS capabilities,' NATO chief says
Standing Maritime Group 2 is due to 'start maritime surveillance activities'
French president is looking to cabinet choices that will widen his voter base with just 15 months to go until he seeks re-election
'NATO and all the parties at the table this morning indicated a willingness for NATO to support and be a part of that operation,' US Secretary of Defense says
Deputy foreign minister Gatilov confirms earlier US reports over cease-fire in Syria
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin says his country backs elections to restore peace in eastern Donbass region
Only the anti-migrant party's 45 lawmakers voted for the introduction of the amendment, while 236 voted against
According to US officials, Moscow is ready to negotiate ceasefire in Syria and even suggests an exact date
Brussels wants Athens to treat incoming asylum seekers better, so that they can be sent back refugees who had originally landed in Greece