Islamist and al Qaeda inspired rebels are in control of an increasingly large swath of territory in Northern Mali  In a glimpse of what may be in store for people unfortunate enough to live in areas under control of these groups, a couple was stoned to death for having sex outside marriage. From the New York Times:

Islamists in control of a town in northern Mali stoned a couple to death after accusing them of having children outside of marriage, a local official who was one of several hundred witnesses to the killings said Monday.

The official said the bearded Islamists, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, brought the couple into the center of the town of Aguelhok from about 12 miles away in the countryside. The young man and woman were forced into holes about four feet deep, with their heads protruding, and then stoned to death at about 5 a.m. Sunday, the official said.

“They put them into the holes, and then they started throwing big rocks, until they were dead,” the official said, speaking by satellite phone from the remote desert town near the Algerian border.

“It was horrible,” he said, noting that the woman had moaned and cried out and that her partner had yelled something indistinct during the attack. “It was inhuman. They killed them like they were animals.”

This incident is just the latest of a series of human rights violations and crimes against humanity that have been emanating from areas under control of hard-line Islamist militias. Earlier this month dozens of priceless cultural antiquities and shrines in Timbuktu were destroyed, ostensibly because they violated the rebels’ hardline religious views.

There is no doubt that Islamist rebels have a pretty solid hold on large swaths of northern Mali. They exploited an alliance with Gaddafi-armed ethnic Tuareg rebels to beat back government forces, then quickly outwitted the Tuaregs. With human rights abuses, its terrorist links, and the prospect of exporting instability to the whole region, calls for outside intervention are gaining some steam. The regional group ECOWAS is eager to intervene (though they would first need security council approval). But without outside support their efficacy is questionable. And even if there is an outside intervention, there is no guarantee that intervention will have a stabilizing effect. Here’s John Campbell from CFR’s excellent Africa in Transition blog.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS is trying to put together an intervention force of 3,000. Yet, as the president of Chad told the French foreign minister, only France (or NATO or even the U.S.) has the necessary capacity to make such a force effective. According to the press, however, there is little West African enthusiasm for French participation in an ECOWAS force and, presumably, even less for NATO or the U.S. Even with outside assistance, it is difficult to see how even a well supplied international force could impose order on the trackless deserts in the North. It could, however, retake Timbuktu, Gao and a few other population centers. But guerrilla fighting could continue indefinitely.

Conventional wisdom among those outsiders who watch Mali is that a political settlement is needed first in Bamako before the Islamist tide can be rolled back in the North. However, while there may be little West African enthusiasm for a French role in an international military force, Ansar Dine atrocities may generate popular support in France for some form of intervention. Other than providing limited logistical support for an international force, I doubt there would be much political support in the U.S. for involvement in Mali, especially during election season. So, while ECOWAS may be able to broker a political settlement in Bamako, and the ICC acquires yet another African case, for the time being, it looks like there are no limits to the barbarism and atrocities in the North.

In short, the situation is as bleak as ever.

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