GAO, Mali — Two gun-toting Islamists keep watch outside a hospital room in the desert city of Gao in northeast Mali. Inside, five young men languish on beds, recovering after they were each severed of a hand and a foot.
The patient-prisoners are among the latest accused criminals to have received hardline Islamic punishments since jihadi rebels and Tuaregs seized power in Mali's north following a coup in the capital Bamako.
A wan light filters into the room, illuminating the bandages wrapped around the men's stumps.
"I admit to having attacked a bus full of travellers," one of the men, Ardo, murmurs to AFP after a reporter gained access to the room.
"But that's not worth them cutting off a hand and a foot."
AFP has changed the names of the amputees.
Last month, five men attacked a bus heading from Gao to the Nigerian border and robbed a large sum of money from passengers.
Five days later, Islamist security forces in Gao captured the alleged culprits, four Fulani men and a Tuareg. The captors imposed their interpretation of sharia law and ordered the amputations, which were carried out September 10.
"I was so afraid that I wanted to kill myself," says Yoro in the regional Fulani language, his words interpreted by a local resident.
"How could they just lop off my hand like that? Now my life is in hospital, it's sad for me," says Yoro who, like the other amputees, is aged about 18.
At least one of the punishments was meted out in public, with the accused's hand and foot severed with a knife.
The men have no idea when they will be allowed to leave the hospital or what they will do once they are free.
A man on another bed says he felt "absolutely nothing" when the amputation occurred.
"They gave me tablets to take just before. I didn't feel a thing, I was drugged," says the young man, wrapped in a robe, without trousers, his leg stump exposed.
One of the group's younger members says: "I went with the others who carried out the theft but I wasn't armed. And I did not know they were going to chop off a hand and a foot."
A bottle of aspirin lies on his bedside table. Care here is rudimentary -- the mattresses have no sheets, and the room feels more like a cell than a hospital centre.
"It's over. I'll never work," one of the men says. Another says he'll have to spend his life in hiding.
A doctor at the hospital, Moulaye Djite, says the men were recovering satisfactorily.
"At the moment, I can't say that they are suffering. There's no infection, nothing. I think it will be OK," Djite says, clearly intimidated by the looming presence of the armed guards posted around the hospital.
"This is just how things are. Our job is to care for the sick. This is what we do," he says.
To let them get around, the men have been given crude wooden crutches, though none has been able to use them yet.
A mish-mash of Islamic and Tuareg groups was swift to exploit the power vacuum in the capital after the March 22 coup and its ensuing political chaos, with different factions claiming power across the region.
Mali this week asked the United Nations for authorisation for a West African-led military force to seize back the massive north, an area larger in size than France or Texas.
Gao is ostensibly under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but is under the de facto control of another Al-Qaeda-linked boss from Algeria.
Human Rights Watch said one of the five amputations carried out on September 10 took place at the Place de l'Independance, while the other four were carried inside a military camp.
The first public amputation took place in Ansongo, 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Gao in August. The amputee had been accused of stealing cattle.
Others accused of wrongdoing have suffered worse fates.
In the small town of Aguelhok, another armed Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) publicly stoned an unmarried couple to death.
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