RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The French-led military intervention in Mali is picking up momentum in the campaign to help the Malian government recapture Islamist-occupied strongholds in the north. And while French airpower has tipped the scales in the Malian government's favor, the question now is whether Mali's beleaguered army is up to the fight. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from Bamako, Mali's capital city in the south.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Here's recent history in a nutshell. When the latest rebellion erupted in Mali a year ago, led by separatist fighters from the nomadic Tuareg ethnic group, aggrieved government soldiers complained that they lacked the military wherewithal to combat the insurgency in the north. Then, junior officers in the faraway capital, Bamako, staged a coup last March, toppling the president. In the ensuing confusion, rebels consolidated their control over a Sahara desert region the size of Texas. Then jihadi fighters, some with al-Qaida links, fighting alongside the turbaned Tuaregs, pushed out their erstwhile allies and seized control, imposing harsh Islamic law - chopping off limbs for perceived crimes and destroying World Heritage sites and tombs in Timbuktu that they deemed un-Islamic. Mali's demoralized army was incapable of fighting back.
CAPTAIN IBRAHIM SAMASSA: I am ready to fight and die for my country. (Foreign language spoken). Thank you.
QUIST-ARCTON: That's Captain Ibrahim Samassa. Now, his English may be a bit hesitant but he says his commitment to his country is not and, that he and the military are prepared to protect and defend Mali until their last drop of blood. I met the captain in Djabaly this past week after Malian troops, along with the French, reclaimed territory from the rebels who'd occupied the strategic central Malian town. It was the first real taste of victory for Mali's army. A French military colleague, Captain Antoine, jumps to their defense.
CAPTAIN ANTOINE: I am confident in my Malian counterparts.
QUIST-ARCTON: Although it's been said that the Malian army is demoralized, is not properly armed, is not properly trained and, without the French, that there's no way that they could have stopped the attack by the jihadis.
ANTOINE: They could have been demoralized, but I can tell you now that their morale is quite high and they are quite combative and they are willing to go further and further and very fast.
QUIST-ARCTON: And civilians are coming round. There's been grudging praise for their own soldiers, as I heard from Madame Djenebou Traore. Her leafy, mud-brick compound, shaded by mango trees, with chickens running around, was occupied by the Islamists last week.
DJENEBOU TRAORE: (French spoken)
QUIST-ARCTON: Madame Traore offers thanks and blessings to the French and Malian armies for coming to their rescue in her neighborhood, Djabaly-Berlin. On Wednesday, the Malian military came under the spotlight for alleged human rights abuses, including summary executions, rapes and kidnappings earlier this month, in reports by both New York-based Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights in Paris.
FLORENT GEEL: We have allegations for 30 cases of illegal execution.
QUIST-ARCTON: Florent Geel heads the Federation's Africa bureau, which has been documenting what he says is growing evidence of rights violations by Mali's army.
GEEL: Some elements is out of control, definitely, especially because some executions have been done inside of the military camp. That demonstrates that there is a problem.
QUIST-ARCTON: Geel says there's a feeling of humiliation among the Malian military from the defeats inflicted by the rebels in the north last year. He warns that this could lead to vengeance and retaliation by soldiers. Geel says Mali's authorities and international partners must step in to stop the rot. General Carter Ham is head of the US Africa Command.
GENERAL CARTER HAM: We have had a U.S. training effort with the Malian armed forces for some number of years.
QUIST-ARCTON: General Ham says perhaps there was too much emphasis on tactical know-how at the expense of other critical training.
HAM: We didn't spend probably the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and a military ethos that says when you put on the uniform of your nation, then you accept the responsibility to conduct yourselves according to the rule of law. So, we've learned from that.
QUIST-ARCTON: The question is will Mali's army learn, will Malian soldiers be disciplined and able to resist revenge attacks against the Islamists and those they consider to be the jihadis' accomplices and sympathizers? Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.