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Islamists tighten their brutal hold on northern Mali

Al-Qa'ida-linked militants step up their campaign of atrocities, raping women and young girls and recruiting boy soldiers

On a sweltering afternoon, Islamist police officers dragged Fatima al-Hassan out of her house in the fabled city of Timbuktu. They beat her up, shoved her into a white pickup truck and drove her to their headquarters. She was locked up in a jail as she awaited her sentence: 100 lashes with an electrical cord. Her crime? Giving water to a male visitor.

The Islamist radicals who seized a vast arc of territory in northern Mali in the spring are intensifying their brutality against the population, according to victims, human rights groups and UN and Malian officials. The attacks are being perpetrated as the United States, European countries and regional powers are readying an African force to retake northern Mali, after months of hesitation.

But such an action, if approved by the UN Security Council, is unlikely to begin until next summer, and refugees fleeing the north are bringing with them dark stories. They say the Islamists are raping and forcibly marrying women, and recruiting children for armed conflict. Social interaction deemed an affront to their interpretation of Islam is zealously punished through religious courts and police. Two weeks ago, the Islamists publicly whipped three unmarried couples 100 times each in Timbuktu, human rights activists said.

The Islamist police had spotted Ms Hassan giving water to a male visitor at her house last month. Her brother knew an Islamist commander and pleaded for mercy. After spending 18 hours in jail, she was set free with a warning. The next day, she fled to Segou, a town in southern Mali that has taken in thousands of displaced northerners, mostly women and children. It was fortunate, she said, that she was handing the glass to her friend out on the veranda. "If they had found me with him near the bedroom, they would have shot us both on the spot," she said.

Radical Islamists have transformed vast stretches of desert in the north into an enclave for al-Qa'ida militants and other jihadists. People are deprived of basic freedoms, historic tombs have been destroyed, and any cultural practices deemed un-Islamic are banned. Children are denied education. The sick and elderly die because many doctors and nurses have fled, and most clinics and hospitals have been destroyed or looted.

On 9 October, Mariam Conate, 15, was walking to her uncle's house in Timbuktu. She had forgotten to fully cover her face. Two Islamist police officers confronted her. "One held me, the other beat me with the barrel of his gun," she recalled. "They took me to their headquarters and threw me into a room. They locked the door and left." Outside, her jailors discussed her future. One wanted to cut off her ears. The other wanted to send her to a prison where six of her friends had been raped.

Publicly, the Islamists have claimed moral righteousness, banning sex before marriage. In August, they stoned a couple to death after accusing them of adultery. Now the Islamists are systematically asking men and women who walk together whether they are married. In the town of Kidal, the Islamists are making lists of unmarried pregnant women to punish them and their partners. To reward their troops' loyalty, the Islamists have found a religious loophole. They have encouraged fighters to marry women or girls, some as young as 10, and often at gunpoint. After sex, they initiate a quick divorce. In a case that has shocked the country, a girl in Timbuktu was forced last month to "marry" six fighters in one night, according to a report in one of Mali's biggest newspapers.

Boys, too, are being abused. With a possible war looming, some as young as 10 have been taken to training camps, where they learn to use weapons and plant homemade bombs, UN officials and human rights activists say. And as the economy worsens in rebel areas, some parents have "sold" their children to buy food or curry favour with the Islamists.

The extremists have not stopped at destroying ancient mausoleums and shrines in Timbuktu, which was an important centre of Islamic learning 500 years ago. Inside his barber shop, Ali Maiga, 33, had a mural of hairstyles favoured by American and French rappers on the wall. The Islamists sprayed white paint over it, he recalled, and warned him that he risks being whipped if he shaves off anyone's beard.

Dedeou, a labourer, suffered even more. He recalled having no attorney when he stood before an Islamic judge on charges of stealing a mattress. Afterwards, he said, police tied his arms and legs and took him to a clearing near the Niger River, where a man gave him two injections that put him to sleep. Dedeou woke up in a hospital. His right hand had been amputated. An Islamist fighter, standing guard at his bedside, uttered a judgment that Dedeou said he could never forget: "This is the punishment God has decided for you."