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Militant Attacks on the Rise in Central Mali

FILE - Health officials stand outside La Terrasse restaurant in Bamako, where five people were killed in a militant attack, March 7, 2015.

Armed groups in Mali are carrying out a growing number of attacks, and that violence is taking place closer to the capital, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday.

A French-led military operation in early 2013 dislodged radical Islamic militants from power in northern Mali, although the report said many of those security gains are now being reversed.

The militants are becoming increasingly active farther south from their northern strongholds, and they are targeting civilians accused of supporting French and U.N. forces, the report said.

The Malian government must move swiftly to restore order, said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for the rights group.

"Mali is awash with arms and bandits, and the pace of attacks is intensifying,'' she said.

The violence in central Mali has been blamed on a new radical group known as the Macina Liberation Movement, which is believed to have ties to the same jihadists who ruled the north in 2012-13.

Armed men are trying to recruit boys and young men to join the group, according to the report. Local residents are under pressure from both sides. If they report the new group to the army, they risk being killed as informants, a local official told the rights group.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission trying to stabilize Mali has been attacked at least 79 times since July 2013, according to the report. It said 35 peacekeepers have died and another 130 have been wounded.

On Sunday, at least two Malian soldiers died when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Segou region. And last month, a masked gunman opened fire inside a popular restaurant in the capital of Bamako, killing five people, including two foreigners.