Jihadist groups are imposing Islamic Sharia law in several locations in Mali, local media have warned. Five years ago, al-Qaeda-linked fighting groups seized power in Mali's second city Timbuktu after hijacking an ethnic Tuareg rebellion in the country's Saharan north.

France's 2013 military intervention and United Nations peacekeeping missions have since returned control of the region to the Malian government, but Islamist groups who imposed a version of Sharia law during their brief control of towns in northern Mali continue to operate across the vast desert areas.

Under Sharia law, transgressing or violating Islamic law requires punishment by whipping or stoning.

In the first such incident since jihadi groups were driven out of the Kidal region of north-east Mali, an unwed couple were stoned to death in public in the Taghlit valley, close to the city of Aguelhok on Tuesday (16 May) by "Islamists", according to local officials. The unmarried couple, who were living together, were accused of violating Islamic law.

A local dignitary is quoted by RFI as saying that the man who was stoned was the son of a high-ranking lieutenant of Iyad ag Ghaly, of the Islamist organisation Ansar Dine.

"This lieutenant was one of the instigators of the death of his own son," the source said. "It may seem incredible, but we are seeing every day the extent of the extremism of these people. This is probably a way for this lieutenant to prove his commitment, in the midst of restructuring jihadist groups, and of course to terrorise the populations as much as possible."

'We must obey them in order not to die'

According to local news site Abamako, armed men are committing abuses on the populations of Diafarabé, a rural commune of the Cercle of Ténenkou in the Mopti Region, where free circulation is no longer possible. The sale of cigarettes and football matches have been forbidden in the name of Sharia.

A local resident, speaking to L'Indicateur du Renouveau, said no authority is present in Diafarabé, which is now in the hands of "armed bandits".

"They do what they want. (...) Every day we see armed men march past. Just the other day, they came and broke everything in their path. They burned houses before leaving, with impunity. No one can intervene," the source said.

"They prohibited the sale and consumption of cigarettes. They do not want to see a woman and a man together if they are not husband and wife. We were also forbidden to play football. There is neither a mayor here nor a prefect. The only authority here is the village chief and his advisers. One day, they came here in the middle of the day to take someone away, they blindfolded and took (that person) on a motorcycle to an unknown destination. Nobody knows where they brought (that person)."

The source, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said local residents of Diafarabé felt "left to our fate". He added: "We must obey them in order not to die. We are being taxed by jihadists, we are persecuted. "

Between March 2012 and January 2013, when northern Mali was under the control of terrorist groups, similar abuses were perpetrated in several cities, including Gao and Timbuktu. Residents accused of robberies were subjected to amputation, and others were flogged in public. In Aguelhoc, an unmarried couple was also stoned to death in July 2012 by members of Ansar Dine, after they were accused of having children outside marriage.

On 18 May, the new under secretary-general for UN peacekeeping operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said that the UN would soon deploy a rapid intervention force of Senegalese troops following the increase in jihadist attacks and communal violence since 2015.