As Britain prepares to send hundreds of troops to West Africa to support French forces fighting Islamists in Mali, charities and human rights groups have warned of serious atrocities being committed on both sides of the conflict.
Reports from workers on the ground suggest child soldiers are being drafted into a war that is split down ethnic and geographical lines, and one that is threatening to turn into a major humanitarian crisis.
More than 2,000 French soldiers are currently supporting the army in Mali after Islamist fighters seized hold of several regions in the North more than nine months ago.
Malian soldiers boarding a French Transall military plane in Bamako, Mali
“We are winning in Mali," French President Francois Hollande told a news conference on Monday, after armed forces secured the key city of Timbuktu.
While news footage showed local Malians celebrating the departure of the Islamists and cheering the French, the situation is far more complicated than some bulletins suggest.
Phillipe Bolopion, the UN Director of Human Rights Watch, told the Huffington Post UK the organisation was documenting "serious evidence of multiple killings by the Malian army", recounting how bodies are dumped and wilfully ignored by the local police.
Malian soldiers walking through the rubble of a former army base leveled during fighting with Islamist rebels in Konna
Bolopion, speaking from Sévaré, a town in the Mopti Region of Mali, said a number of people from different ethnic groups were rounded up from around town and bus stations a few weeks ago and then slaughtered.
"The bodies were dumped in a well close to the Gendarmerie station and they are still there. No one is interested in investigating," he said.
Islamist groups have been driven from the area, yet Bolopion painted a stark picture of the scene that will greet British troops, adding: “If Sevare is the test case of things to come in other liberated areas it is very worrying."
“We are trying to piece it all together but the army are intimidating people and telling them not to talk. We told the Gendarmerie; ‘the bodies are still there, you can see them, but they say ‘why dont you ask my boss? or 'it's the fire service’s fault.’ And what this shows is there is no interest in investigation from local authorities.’
Malian soldiers outside Gao airport
His disturbing account follows a report by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) alleging that the Malian army is responsible for at least 33 killings since Jan 10, particularly in the towns of Sévaré, Nioro, and Mopti.
Refugees have told of horrific atrocities committed by the Islamists too, with public whippings, children being recruited to fight and rebels chopping off people’s hands.
As displaced families struggle with the emotional and physical toll of what they have witnessed, both Save The Children and UNHCR have reported on how members of different ethnic communities blame each other for supporting the separatist rebellion which led to the present conflict.
Many of these people have already survived the worst food crisis in living memory and there are fears that the situation could develop into a major humanitarian crisis.
A burnt-out car in Konna after the fighting
Sévaré is not the only town that has seen conflict. Konna, in the centre of Mali, witnessed fierce fighting less than a week ago. Many of the town’s main buildings were razed to the ground after clashes between Malian army and rebel groups and then the French forces moved their troops in.
Bolopion claims they have collected evidence of civilian casulties after a French airstrike in Konna and said there had also been reports of people being taken away from the Malian army and turning up either dead or missing.
A crowd cheers the arrival of French soldiers in Timbuktu, in northern Mali
He said they had documented four civilians who were killed in the airstrike so far, with one woman, and three children, aged six, ten and 11.
He added: "Reports suggested there may be more but we did not have enough time to check as the Malian army did not allow it."
There has been widespread frustration at the lack of access to the places where fighting has taken place, either to journalists or to people providing humanitarian aid. Al Jazeera's Yasmine Ryan, who is in Mali, described the conflict as an 'invisible war' with no official death tolls for civilians or soldiers.
A French soldier guards the Timbuktu airport in Mali
Despite these accounts of violence, Tom McCormack of Save the Children said most people seem happy that the West has intervened.
Speaking from the capital Boloko, McCormack told the Huffington Post UK: "It seems most Malians accept that forceful intervention was needed and most people feel relieved that armed groups (Islamists) are gone."
The brutal violence of these groups was documented in a January 2013 report by Amnesty, which told how Tuareg and Islamist armed opposition groups engaged in widespread rape and torture and killed of captured Malian soldier and recruited child soldiers.
"We dont have first hand reports but we are hearing stories of child soldiers being involved in the fighting, being lured into training camps with a little bit of money and being used in the conflict in various ways."
McCormack said he thought the recent flurry of violence was now settling down into a "long simmering conflict" which came with its own set of challenges.
Angry crowds shout at suspected Islamist extremists in the back of an army truck in Gao
Thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting, with very few refugee camps and instead refugees staying with host families or extended relatives.
According to UNCHR some 380,000 people have fled northern Mali since the start of the conflict a year ago. This includes 230,000 who fled South, and more than 150,000 who are living as refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria (despite the border being closed)
McCormack said this displacement threatens to push communities to breaking point. "These are some of the poorest people in the world and it wont take very much for people to be pushed over the edge," he added.
"People have always been able to accept the many different ethnic groups in Malian society and prided themselves on getting along but these Islamist groups have proved really divisive.
"There’s an added factor of social strain now. A lot of people resent this, and blame the Touregs for this tension and some Northern Malians living down south fear they could be stigmatised and blamed for the crisis. People are pitted against people and there have been isolated cases where northern malians have been targeted.
"I fear there will be some social damage with reprisals as those in the south see it a chance to punish people in the north for the unrest."
Hundreds of Malians looted stores in Timbuktu, saying the shops belonged to 'Arabs' and 'terrorists' linked to the radical Islamists who occupied the desert town for 10 months
This is supported by a report by the UNHCR which talks of "tension between ethnic communities" and appeals to community leaders and to the Malian authorities "to give urgent priority to initiatives to promote peace and reconciliation between various ethnic groups."
Additionally both the Red Cross and Crescent and Plan International have raised concern over the developing humanitarian situation in the region. ICRCC have been involved in large scale food distribution in the north, amid shortages of fuel needed to power water pumps and lack of chemicals to treat the water.
Dr Krishnan of Plan International told the Huffington Post UK: "We, the global humanitarian community, have been struggling to raise money to help almost 400,000 people displaced by the fighting. We are asking for just one-third of the military budget – US$370 million. But as of this morning only 1% has been committed.”
Lindsay German of Stop the War Coalition told the Huffington Post UK that intervention in these kinds of situations never worked "because it doesnt address the problems and grievances people are facing on the ground."
"Every time the government does a knee jerk reaction like this you know its not addressing the real problems.
"They need to address the inequality of people living there. Islamists do well in part in these regions because the state is not functioning for the people and they provide some sort of alternative for people who are very very poor."
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