UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Malians in the country's vast desert north are scared and in desperate need of aid, traumatized at the hands of Islamist extremists and fearful of ethnic reprisals by government troops, a senior U.N. humanitarian official said on Tuesday.
John Ging, director of operations for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said a U.N. appeal for $373 million to fund aid operations in the West African state had so far only received $17 million.
Mali's Tuareg rebels seized control of the Saharan north last year but were pushed aside by better-armed al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist groups, which imposed severe sharia (Islamic law) including stoning for adulterers, amputations for thieves, forcing women to don veils and banning music and smoking.
A French-led military operation started last month has since driven insurgents from northern towns such as Gao and Timbuktu, and is now focused on the remote northeast mountains and desert that includes networks of caves, passes and porous borders.
"People are in fear, people are traumatized, the brutality ... moved men to tears. It's really very raw and heartfelt," Ging told reporters at the United Nations in New York after returning from a four-day visit to northern Mali.
"They're fearing both the return of the extremists and also they fear reprisals," he said, referring to worries that Malian troops will carry out ethnic reprisals against light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs associated with the Islamists.
Malian troops have already been accused by international human rights groups of revenge killings of suspected Islamist rebels and sympathizers in retaken areas.
A U.N.-backed African force, known as AFISMA, is due to take over leadership of the military operation when France begins to withdraw forces from its former West African colony. Once combat operations end, the U.N. Security Council is considering converting AFISMA to a peacekeeping force, diplomats say.
Ging said some 431,000 people had so far fled northern Mali. "Those that were displaced, they do not feel yet that it is safe to return. The people who never left don't feel it's safe," he said. "It's most definitely safer than it was."
During his visit, Ging said he had met boys with amputated limbs and heard horrific stories of rape and harrowing accounts of other atrocities. He said the priority of the people was security, to get help for the agricultural industry and to rebuild the education system.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Doina Chiacu)