AMSTERDAM The International Criminal Court on Tuesday warned Mali it is considering investigating reports of killings, rapes and other war crimes it fears may have been committed since January when fighting erupted there, triggering a wider crisis.
"The office has been closely following the developments in Mali since clashes erupted around 17 January 2012," the ICC prosecutor's office said in a statement, adding it would now decide whether to conduct a preliminary investigation.
"According to several sources, including senior United Nations officials, crimes such as killings, abductions, rapes and conscription of children may have been committed by various groups in the northern part of the country," it added.
It was unclear whether it was referring to alleged atrocities committed by a mixture of Islamist and Tuareg-led separatists or government troops or both.
Trouble in the West African state erupted on January 17 when Tuareg gunmen clashed with government troops in the northern town of Menaka after months of warnings that rebels had been massing.
This was followed by further outbreaks of violence and a military coup on March 22 which derailed an election planned for April, plunging Mali into chaos.
Africa's number three gold producer is now a fractured territory without a state, occupied by competing rebel groups in the north while politicians and coup leaders in the south jostle for control of the capital Bamako.
Warnings of this kind from the ICC are not unusual, particularly when violence breaks out in member states, for example around elections.
However, enforcement of arrest warrants in the wake of formal investigations can prove difficult.
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has evaded a three-year-old arrest warrant from the ICC for example, and travels fairly freely without fear of being detained.
Until recently, Mali enjoyed an international reputation for stability and democracy, but that has been shattered in the space of a few weeks and there is no sign the broken nation can be put back together soon - raising concerns among neighbours and Western powers about the emergence of a lawless "rogue state" exploited by al Qaeda and criminals.
For now, Mali remains divided in two since rebels declared an independent Tuareg homeland in the north, following a military coup in the southern capital Bamako that created a power vacuum that allowed the insurgents to capture key northern towns.
(Reporting by Sara Webb; Editing by Andrew Osborn)