A French colony until 1960, Mali had military rulers for decades until its first democratic elections in 1992. It remained stable politically until March, when a group of soldiers toppled the government, saying it had not provided adequate support for them to fight ethnic Tuareg rebels in the country's largely desert north.
Tuareg rebels, who'd sought independence for decades, took advantage of the power vacuum and seized swaths of land. A power struggle then erupted in the north between the Tuaregs and local al Qaeda-linked radicals, who wound up in control of a large area as the Tuaregs retreated.
The United Nations says amputations, floggings and public executions -- like the July stoning of a couple who had reportedly had an affair -- have become common in areas controlled by radical Islamists. They applied a strict interpretation of Sharia law in banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television, and damaged Timbuktu's historic tombs and shrines.