African forces boost Mali offensive, concern over abuses

African forces moved towards Mali's centre today, as the European Union joined a chorus of concern over summary killings and abuses in the offensive on Al Qaeda-linked groups.

The first troops from a UN-mandated African force aimed at replacing the French mission have "already started to move towards central towns," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Paris.

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 bloc ECOWAS. The involvement of non-member Chad could boost the African deployment by another 2,000 soldiers.

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.

"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 in remarks translated in French.

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