Mali is 90 per cent Muslim; its two largest minority groups are the Peuhl (also known as Fula or Fulani), amounting to 14 per cent of the population; and Tuareg and Maure, who make up another 10 per cent. Some members of the Tuareg population in particular have been engaged in low-level conflict with the government for decades in the pursuit of a separate Tuareg state, Azawad. These demands have been reinforced by political marginalization and poverty in the north, resulting in rebellions in the 1990s and mid-2000s.

With the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, armed Malian Tuareg among his fighters returned home, giving new impetus to the separatist movement, which launched an offensive in early 2012. The Tuareg were joined by largely foreign Islamist extremist groups. The latter increasingly dominated as the offensive advanced south, eventually covering two-thirds of Mali's territory.

These groups had been accused of serious abuses including unlawful killings, the recruitment of children and sexual violence. Militants had imposed Sharia law, with public floggings, amputations and executions in areas under their control. Malian security forces had also been accused of violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.

In January 2013, Mali's interim President requested that France intervene. The French-led counter-offensive was reported as broadly successful in dislodging the jihadist groups and over the next few months took back contested areas and re-imposed state control. However, in a disturbing trend, Tuareg and Arabs, perceived due to their ethnicity as having been likely supporters of the rebels, were at times targeted with violence by both security forces and pro-government self-defence militias, leading many of them to flee their homes. The violence exacerbated divisions between ethnic groups caused in part by competition for control of limited resources: for example, nomadic herder groups found themselves cut off from traditional migratory grazing routes as their movements were restricted by fear of attack from the army or self-defence militias.

In March the UN reported that inflammatory messages in the media had helped to stigmatize Peuhl, Tuareg and Arab ethnic groups, creating a climate for targeted attacks against them. A Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission was created to help restore peace and security, and the authorities used national radio to broadcast messages of reconciliation. The government was encouraged to consider creating a monitoring mechanism to detect the incitement of hate and violence in the media, and to punish those responsible. A Minister for National Reconciliation and the Development of the Northern Regions was also appointed. For their part, Tuareg separatists were at times accused of expelling other ethnic groups from areas under their control, apparently due to their perceived support for the government.

In June, the government and Tuareg groups signed the Ouagadougou Agreement, providing for confinement of combatants to designated areas as part of the peace process and their relinquishing of power to Malian state forces. However, it was not implemented in areas such as Kidal, where both Tuareg separatists and the security forces were accused of violations as they battled for control. Peaceful presidential elections commenced in July, and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was installed in September 2013. Legislative elections were held in November, in spite of minor protests in parts of the north. At year's end some violence, including sporadic suicide and other attacks by militant groups and fighting in Kidal between Tuareg separatists and security forces, continued. According to UNHCR, there were nearly 183,000 Malian refugees in neighbouring countries and over 353,000 internally displaced in mid-2013. Most were believed to be Tuareg or Arabs, afraid to return due to the risk of ethnicity-based reprisal attacks by the army or militias, although numbers fell during the course of the year as some returned.

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