THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Mali's justice minister on Wednesday asked prosecutors at the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into "grave and massive" crimes committed in the African nation that was plunged into turmoil by a coup this year.
Court's Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement that Justice Minister Malick Coulibaly had handed her a letter seeking "to determine whether one of more persons should be charged" in violence committed since the beginning of the year.
Mali has been mired in turbulence since a March coup overthrew the democratically elected president.
Bensouda says alleged crimes including killings and rapes, and the conscription of child soldiers have been reported "by several sources."
In his letter to the court seeking an investigation, Coulibaly said the crimes include "grave and massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed particularly in the north of the country."
Mali's government said it is appealing to the Hague-based tribunal to investigate because the country's own courts cannot prosecute the crimes.
After the coup that ousted Mali's democratic government, ethnic Tuareg rebels seeking secession took control of the country's north — an area larger than France — but were driven out in June by Islamists vowing to introduce an ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law, the Sharia. They are estimated to number about 700 fighters, but exact figures are not available.
The prosecutor said earlier this month that destruction by Islamists of Muslim shrines in the northern town of Timbuktu could be a war crime.
Islamist groups claim the sites violate Islamic law by encouraging people to direct their prayers toward the deceased and not toward God.
Bensouda said she has called on her staff to quickly launch a preliminary investigation to establish whether the court can take on the case.
Mali is the fourth country in Africa to call on the 10-year-old ICC to launch an investigation into atrocities, after Uganda, Congo and Central African Republic.
So far, every one of the court's investigation has involved Africa.
Earlier this month, the court sentenced its first convicted war criminal, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, to 14 years imprisonment for conscripting, recruiting and using child soldiers in fighting.