Bamako - The Islamists who have seized control of Mali's desert north are growing increasingly brutal as they impose sharia on the region, even as they violate the strict Muslim law themselves, say fleeing residents.
"They are really getting more and more barbaric. They kill, they rape, and no one does anything to stop them," a student named Oumar told AFP after arriving in the capital Bamako on Wednesday on a bus from the north-eastern town of Gao.
"They forced my sister into marriage, then a month later her husband divorced her. These barbarians get married to have a good time and when they're done, they throw the woman away," he added.
"How can a man of God have six wives?" he asked - two wives more than the number allowed by the Koran. According to Oumar, women who have fled forced marriages with Islamist fighters have said the men do not wear condoms, which he said worried him because they were likely to spread Aids through the region.
Once considered one of Africa's most stable democracies, Mali has descended into chaos since a 22 March coup that overthrew the government of president Amadou Toumani Toure.
A series of Islamist groups including al-Qaeda's north African branch capitalised on the power vacuum to seize the country's vast desert north, an area larger than France.
For more than six months, the Islamists have been imposing sharia on areas under their control, arresting unveiled women, stoning an unmarried couple to death, publicly flogging smokers and amputating suspected thieves' limbs, according to residents and rights groups.
A family of eight who arrived in Bamako on the same bus as Oumar said they had decided to abandon the region, which the father said had become "a prison" for those unable to flee.
New found power
"What's happening is serious," he said. "The Islamists say they are in favour of sharia but they themselves drink and smoke. Some of them even take drugs. How can anyone call them people of God?"
Another resident of the north, Thierno, from Timbuktu, said he had managed to get a ride in a private car to the central town of Mopti, then catch a bus to the capital.
Buses have stopped serving Timbuktu, an ancient city renowned as a centre of Islamic learning where the Islamists have been destroying the tombs of Muslim saints, calling the Unesco World Heritage sites blasphemous.
"The Islamists don't respect anyone in Timbuktu," said Thierno. "They pretend to be for sharia."
On Tuesday, he said, "they arrested more than 20 people accused of theft or smoking who are going to be whipped in public. But in reality, the Islamists are doing that to make people afraid. It's staged."
Thierno said the Islamists were taking advantage of their newfound power to make business deals and get rich. But he added that he did not think it would be hard to evict them.
"They're armed, and it's true they're making people afraid. But you'll see, as soon as the first shots are fired, they're going to flee the city," he said.
West African nations are currently preparing an internationally backed military intervention to reclaim the region.
A high-level international meeting will be held on Friday in Bamako with African Union boss Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, interim Malian president Dioncounda Traore and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy for the region, Romano Prodi.
The meeting was called to hammer out an agreement between top officials and work out details on the make-up of the intervention force sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).