Bamako: African forces began moving towards Mali's centre, the French Foreign Minister said, as pressure grew on Malian troops over summary killings and rights abuses in a French-led assault on Al Qaeda-linked groups.
    
The first troops from UN-mandated African force aimed at replacing the French mission had "already started to move towards central towns," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Paris on Wednesday, adding that the force had deployed "far quicker than envisaged."
    
He said 1,000 troops from West African countries and Chad had already arrived in Mali, which has been split in two since April.
    
"The African force is deploying much faster than expected," Fabius said. "Obviously that poses a number of logistical difficulties but I have to say that I have seen a very big effort by our African friends."
    
A Malian defence official said that 160 soldiers from Burkina Faso had arrived in Markala, 270 kilometres north of the capital Bamako, to "take up the baton from the French" guarding a strategic bridge on the Niger river.
    
"They are already in place and could then go on to Niono and Diabaly," two towns farther north, the source said, adding, "After the French, it will be the Africans who are on the ground."
    
The UN has authorised the deployment of a 3,300-strong force under the auspices of 15-nation West African grouping ECOWAS. But the involvement of Chad, which has committed up to 2,000 troops, means the force could now be much bigger.
    
Nearly two weeks after France swept to Mali's aid to stop an Islamist advance towards Bamako, reports emerged of atrocities committed by Malian soldiers and growing fears of attacks among light-skinned ethnic communities.
    
The majority of the Al Qaeda-linked rebels being hunted by the armies are either Tuaregs or Arabs.
    
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said that in the central town of Sevare at least 11 people were executed in a military camp near the bus station and the town's hospital, citing evidence gathered by local researchers.
    
Credible reports also pointed to around 20 other people having been executed in the same area and the bodies having been dumped in wells or otherwise disposed of, the organisation said.
    
At Niono, also in the centre of the country, two Malian Tuaregs were executed by Malian soldiers, according to the FIDH.

(Agencies)

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The organisation called for an immediate independent inquiry to "determine the scale of the abuses and to punish the perpetrators."