LONDON (AlertNet) - As France intensifies its military operations against Islamic rebels in Mali, aid workers and rights groups warn of the likely rise in civilian deaths, human rights abuses and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Since Jan. 11, France has poured hundreds of soldiers into Mali and carried out airstrikes in the northern half of the country, which was seized last year by an Islamist alliance combining al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM with Mali's homegrown MUJWA and Ansar Dine rebel groups.
France has said its sudden intervention, after Mali's president appealed for help in the face of a rebel advance, stopped Islamists from seizing the capital Bamako in the south.
"With the current intervention of the French, we are, of course, very afraid that the humanitarian situation will worsen very quickly," said Salvatore Saguès, West Africa researcher at Amnesty International.
He said civilian casualties were virtually unavoidable - despite France's best efforts to target rebel fighters in its bombing campaign - because rebels were living among civilians.
"It is simply impossible to really separate the armed groups and the population because the armed groups (are) in towns, in civilian buildings," Saguès told AlertNet in a phone interview.
Another major concern was the use of child soldiers by both rebel groups and government-backed militias, he added.
During a visit to Mali in September, Saguès and his fellow researchers found evidence of teenagers below the age of 18 being recruited in the strategic central garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare.
He said Islamic armed groups had recruited a lot of children initially to man roadblocks, but recent reports suggest many child soldiers had been sent to the frontline. Some of them had been killed, others wounded, he added.
France intends to deploy 2,500 soldiers in total to its former colony to bolster the Malian army and work with a planned force of 3,300 West African troops in a U.N.-backed intervention to be led by Africans.
Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Guinea have all offered troops - with regional powerhouse Nigeria due to lead the mission. But citing the "appalling human rights record" of regional armies including Nigeria's, Amnesty's Saguès said the presence of African troops may even put civilians at risk.
"These armies, who are already committing serious violations in their countries, are most likely to do the same, or at least not behave in accordance to international law if they are in Mali," he said.
Amnesty wants the U.N. to send international monitors to Mali to look into the use of child soldiers in the conflict - and ensure that the Malian army refrains from retaliatory attacks on civilians if they retake control of the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
Since France's intervention last week, aid agencies have appealed to all sides of the conflict to do their best to protect civilians.
"We are worried about the people living close to the combat zones, and we call on all the parties to the conflict to respect the safety of civilians and to leave medical facilities untouched," Rosa Crestani, emergency response coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, said in a statement.
In a separate statement, World Vision called on the British and French governments to use all their influence to ensure that safe passage was given to fleeing refugees.
The crisis has internally displaced nearly 230,000 Malians, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. An additional 144,500 Malians were refugees in other countries in the region.