A split appears to have emerged within the Islamist Ansar Dine rebel group in Mali's northern desert. A breakaway faction said Thursday it wanted a "peaceful solution" as African troops joined a French-led advance.
French RFI radio reported Thursday that former Ansar Dine leader Alghabass Ag Intalla had declared the formation of the "Islamic Movement for Azawad," composed entirely of Malian nationals.
Intalla was quoted as saying that his new faction was looking for a "negotiated solution" and that it was committed to fighting "all forms of extremism and terrorism."
His reported remarks came as units of an UN-mandated African force advanced into Mali's central regions on Thursday to join a French intervention.
A Malian defense official said 160 soldiers from Burkina Faso had arrived in Markala, 270 kilometers (170 miles) north of Mali's capital Bamako, to "take up the baton from the French" at a bridge over the Niger river.
France began the intervention on January 11 in the vast country, aiming to stop an Islamist advance on Bamako by deploying 2,300 soldiers, backed by airstrikes.
On January 18, Malian and French troops retook the previously rebel-held towns of Konna and Diabaly, around 350 kilometers from Bamako.
ECOWAS deployment 'fast'
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday that 1,000 troops of the 3,300 pledged by the 15-nation West African block ECOWAS had arrived inside Mali.
"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."
Various countries have provided logistics. Two German Transall military transport planes began airlifting ECOWAS troops to Bamako last Monday.
Alarm over atrocity allegations
The European Union joined a chorus of alarm on Thursday over reports of atrocities allegedly committed by Malian soldiers and attacks on light-skinned Tuareg or Arabs.
"We are very worried by reports evoking the possibility of ethnic attacks and fighting and abuses committed in revenge attacks," said EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva.
The International Federation of Human Rights (IFHR) announced that at least 31 people had been "executed" around the central Malian town of Sevare. Two members the Tuareg ethnic community had also been executed in the town of Niono, it said.
IFHR said it also had "credible information" of soldiers sexually abusing women in a village near Sevare and called for an urgent independent inquiry.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the intervention forces' credibility was at risk by association. "We cannot accept any rights violations," he said.
Malian army chief General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele promised that any soldier involved in abuses would be brought to book.
"One mustn't get confused," he said. "Every white skin is not a terrorist or a jihadist and among the enemy which attacked our different position were many black skins. We are among brothers, whether one is black or white."
Weapons from Libya, says Clinton
Testifying to the US Senate on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Mali's situation had been inflamed by an inflow of weapons from neighboring Libya following the Libyan rebel overthrow dictator Muammar Gadhafi in October 2011.
She said there was "no doubt" that the Malian remnants of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghred had obtained weapons from Libya.
Mali's crisis began a year ago when ethnic Tuareg fighters resumed a decades-old rebellion for independence in northern Mali, a region they call Azawad.
They allied with hardline Islamists and seized towns such as Timbuktu and Gao. Later, the Islamists broke with their Tuareg allies and implemented an extreme form of Shariah law across northern Mali.
ipj/msh (AFP, Reuters, dapd)