Malian soldiers patrol in Kidal, northern Mali, on July 29, 2013
Bamako (AFP) - Up to nine civilians, including an aid worker for a European charity, were killed after rebels attacked a village in northern Mali, loyalist and anti-government militias said on Friday.
The United Nations warned of an "alarming escalation" of violence in the deeply divided west African country after the killings, which happened in an area supposed to be under a ceasefire.
The nation's main Tuareg-led rebel alliance, the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), said the Malian army had "conducted the summary and public executions of nine people in the town of Tin Hama" on Thursday.
"The nine people were first arrested by the GATIA militia and then handed over to Malian soldiers who then executed them," it said in a statement, referring to the pro-government Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defence Group.
Among the victims named by the CMA were Moussa Ag Mohamedoune, a 35-year-old worker for Action Against Hunger Spain, and a 13-year-old boy.
The information could not be independently verified, and no one from the Malian army was available for comment.
But the government rejected the allegations, saying the killings were part of a "bloody settling of scores between armed groups belonging to the locality" in a statement which accused the CMA of killing three civilians.
The government said CMA rebels attacked Tin Hama on Wednesday and were pushed back by Malian troops who seized "important war materials".
It said it was "surprised" by allegations of abuses committed by the army, adding that the administration "strongly condemns these unfortunate acts against innocent people".
MINUSMA, the UN's peacekeeping operation in Mali, said it had deployed investigators to look into "disturbing reports of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law".
- 'Alarming escalation' -
It did not confirm the reports but said executions of civilians "would constitute grave crimes for which the perpetrators must be brought to justice".
Tin Hama is situated near the flashpoint town of Menaka, seized from rebels by pro-government fighters on April 27 in an operation which has sparked numerous violations of a ceasefire agreement in the area.
The UN expressed "deep concern at the alarming escalation in armed confrontations" in northern Mali and said it "once again condemns the gross and continuing violations of the ceasefire that jeopardise the peace process".
Pro-government GATIA militia spokesman Algatek Ouwaha blamed the CMA rebel alliance for what happened.
He said pro-rebel and pro-GATIA people had been "coexisting peacefully" in Tin Hama before the CMA came on Wednesday.
Ouwaha did not say how many civilians had been killed but told AFP the rebels had "mistreated people, killed an old man and burned another".
"After the departure of the CMA from the town, there was a terrible settling of scores against people accused of working with the CMA," he added.
Action Against Hunger Spain confirmed Ag Mohamedoune's death, describing him as a facilitator in food security.
The charity said it had decided to suspend its activities in northern Mali "in order to understand the precise circumstances of this tragedy".
Mali was shaken by a coup in 2012 which cleared the way for Tuareg separatists to seize the towns and cities of the vast northern desert.
- Rocket attack -
Militants linked to Al-Qaeda then overpowered the Tuareg to take control of northern Mali for nearly 10 months, imposing a brutal interpretation of Islamic law characterised by amputations and executions.
A French-led military offensive ousted the militants but the country remains strongly divided, with the northern Tuareg and Arab populations accusing sub-Saharan ethnic groups in the more prosperous south of marginalising them.
The government and a coalition of armed groups from the north have signed a UN-aided peace accord, but the CMA wants political recognition of "Azawad", the Tuareg name for northern Mali.
A MINUSMA source told AFP militants had launched a failed six-rocket attack at one of its barracks near the ancient trading post of Timbuktu on Friday.
"We returned fire. There were no casualties among our ranks," the source said, without giving further details.
The attack coincided with the release by the CMA of 10 pro-government fighters in the Timbuktu region, a separate MINUSMA source said.