New York - The United Nations on Wednesday expressed concern over continuing violence against ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs in Mali, citing evidence of new rights abuses against the two communities.
The UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said that while "arbitrary acts of violence" against Tuaregs and Arabs had recently slowed, "there is still a risk of reprisal against members of these communities".
"Worryingly, it appears from reports that new patterns of human rights violations have emerged, including retaliatory attacks based on ethnicity," Feltman added.
His remarks were made as he updated the 15-member UN Security Council about the situation in the troubled west African nation, which is still in the grips of an Islamist insurgency that gained momentum following a March 2012 military coup.
The United Nations estimates that about 470 000 people have fled the fighting and sought refuge either in Malian host communities or in neighbouring countries.
More than 290 000 people are internally displaced and about 177 000 are refugees in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Feltman said there will be another 750 000 people in need of immediate food assistance and 660 000 children at risk of malnutrition this year, including 210 000 at risk of severe acute malnutrition.
Mali's military fell apart last year when Islamist extremists seized the country's vast northern desert, terrorising locals with amputations and executions performed under a brutal interpretation of sharia Islamic law.
A French-led intervention quickly drove out the insurgents in its former colony, but significant pockets of resistance remain in the Ifoghas mountains, as well as in the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
Feltman said that "humanitarian access has improved in some parts of the country," but that in some areas, particularly in Timbuktu and Gao, "the situation remains highly volatile".
His remarks came one day after the European Union began a full overhaul of Mali's ill-prepared army to help take the place of foreign troops defending the country.
Paris is preparing to hand over to a UN-mandated African force of 6 300 in the coming weeks.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed putting in place a UN stabilisation mission mostly recruited among Africans already part of the Pan-African force Afisma, as well as a mostly French "parallel force" to undertake counter-terrorism efforts that would combat the Islamists.
Feltman warned on Wednesday that it is imperative that a "clear distinction" be maintained between the two forces.
"Any blurring of the distinction would place severe constraints on the ability of UN and other personnel to safely do their work," he said.