By David Lewis
DAKAR (Reuters) - Mali plans to ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate killings, rapes, torture, and attacks on cultural sites in its rebel-controlled north, the country's justice minister said on Thursday.
Justice Minister Malick Coulibaly did not say when the request would be lodged, but RFI, the French radio station that interviewed him, said a Malian government delegation would go to The Hague-based court to file the request in the coming days.
"Given that the north of Mali is not under the control of the legitimate authorities, we think it is right to submit the case to the court in order to avoid impunity," Coulibaly said in the interview.
A mixture of local and foreign Islamists, including some fighters linked to al Qaeda, have hijacked a rebellion initially launched in January by secular Tuareg separatist rebels, creating a security threat that regional and Western governments have compared to Afghanistan.
After chasing the secular MNLA rebels from their positions, Islamist fighters have consolidated their grip and carried out a wave of attacks on ancient Sufi shrines, some of which were classified world heritage sites by UNESCO.
A spokeswoman for the ICC prosecutor's office was unable to confirm whether it had received a communication from the government of Mali.
In April, the ICC said it was considering investigating rapes and killings that had been committed since fighting erupted in Mali's desert north in January.
Coulibaly said Mali would call for an investigation into crimes committed by the MNLA separatists, Islamist groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA and other fighters dating back to January.
He confirmed that the destruction of cultural sites, which has mainly occurred in the ancient city of Timbuktu and drawn widespread international criticism, would form part of the request.
There is no accurate toll for the fighting, but over 300,000 people have been forced from their homes.
After months of sporadic clashes in mostly remote desert, the rebels swiftly seized Mali's three northern regions after a March 22 coup extinguished the army's resistance.
But after a brief and awkward alliance, the separatists and Islamists fell out, with the latter, enjoying support from regional al Qaeda fighters, coming out on top.
West African leaders are still struggling to get Mali's squabbling politicians to form a national unity government that would then request U.N. backing for troops from the ECOWAS regional bloc in order to help in the fight against groups occupying the north.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam; Editing by Andrew Osborn)