THE HAGUE - International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said Wednesday she has ordered a preliminary inquiry into events in Mali where Islamists have seized control of the vast north.
"I have instructed my office to immediately proceed with a preliminary examination of the situation," Bensouda said in a statement after talks with Malian Justice Minister Malick Coulibaly. "The government of Mali... refers the situation in Mali since January 2012 to my office and requests an investigation to determine whether one or more persons should be charged with the crimes committed," the statement said.
The Malian government had declared itself "unable to prosecute or try the perpetrators", the statement said.
Mali said last week it planned to ask the ICC to probe atrocities allegedly committed by the armed groups now occupying the north, including the Islamist Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith)
Bensouda has said she regards the destruction of the shrines of Muslim saints in the ancient trading hub of Timbuktu as a war crime, and that the court was collecting information on the matter.
Speaking after the meeting with Bensouda, Coulibaly welcomed her decision.
"I am satisfied with the decision of the prosecutor. It is very important for the victims because they know now that they have not been forgotten," the minister said.
The Malian government had provided the prosecutor's office with a detailed report alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity, Emeric Rogier, senior analyst at the prosecutor's office told AFP.
The chief prosecutor would take a decision on whether to open an inquiry "in due course", the statement added.
Once seen as one of west Africa's most stable democracies, Mali has unravelled into chaos in a matter of months.
The crisis erupted when Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in January launched a rebellion for independence which swiftly overwhelmed the nation's army.
Angry and frustrated, a group of mid-ranking soldiers launched a coup on March 22, but in the political and security vacuum, the north became easy prey and fell to rebel groups in a matter of days.
The Tuareg rebels have since been completely sidelined by armed jihadist groups linked to Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which initially appeared to be fighting with them in an unclear alliance.
Ansar Dine has violently enforced sharia law, whipping unmarried couples and chopping off hands, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said, and has also smashed the ancient shrines seen as idolatrous.
The rights group last week released a report saying that Mali was "descending into hell" because of the executions, rape and torture taking place in the north.
The FIDH also called on the world community to "intensify actions to reestablish legitimate authority in Bamako and speed up political transition".
Interim prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra on Tuesday presented a roadmap for rescuing his country from its post-coup crisis to the region's lead mediator President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has given Mali's interim authorities until July 31 to form a unity government or face suspension from the 15-nation group.
ECOWAS wants to send a 3,000-strong military force to Mali, but is waiting for United Nations approval and a formal request from Bamako.
A more inclusive Mali government is expected to come up with a framework to win back the vast desert north of the country.