A mother’s tale of crime and punishment in northern Mali

Aman Sethi writes: There are some decisions that a mother hopes she will never have to make: for instance, would she accept blood money from the man who killed her son?

Hadi Maiga was certain that money would never be able to assuage her grief; and so there she was — a slight woman in a flowing headscarf — in the middle of a vast sun-drenched square on an October evening in Timbuktu watching as the Islamic police led out Moussa Mohammed, the man accused of shooting her son Ibrahim.

Once unshackled, the accused fell to his knees and prayed for what seemed like a long, long time. An Islamic walked up to Ms. Maiga and offered her a gun. She refused to touch it. The gun was handed to her younger son Abdullah who declined as well.

The prisoner stood up from his prayers; an order was given, and a guard from the Islamic police shot him in the back. The prisoner collapsed but staggered back up to his feet so the police shot him again. And to the sand he fell, and there he lay till that night when they brought him to the local hospital.

“Praise the Lord,” said the commander of the Islamic police as the body was wheeled into the morgue. Outside, the rain suddenly pelted down on this town — renowned for its earthen mosques, mausoleums, 333 saints and the solitary djinn.

Before French and Malian forces reclaimed swathes of northern Mali from a ten-month Islamist occupation in January this year, the militants had gained universal notoriety for their radical interpretation and harsh implementation of sharia law.

There is no one universally accepted set of sharia as jurisprudence is drawn from the Koran, the word of God; the Hadith, which describes the way of the Prophet; and fiqh, the human interpretation of divine texts. In the post-colonial period, Muslim communities have tended to adopt aspects of sharia into personal and civil law, rather than criminal law.

In Timbuktu, the militants interpreted the sharia as divine sanction to destroy the medieval mausoleums of venerated Muslim saints, burn rare treatises on religion and science, and impose a regime of flogging, amputations and public executions.

Documents recovered from abandoned Islamist buildings, hospital records, and interviews suggest the 10-month occupation was not a descent into anarchy but a lucidly planned, and often terrifying, attempt at realising a vision of a more just, pure, and orderly society. [Continue reading…]

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Mali troops attack rival red beret camp in Bamako

The Guardian reports: Fierce fighting between rival army factions broke out in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday, in an ominous sign of the military’s weakness and amid further attacks from Islamist rebels.

At least one person was killed and five injured when forces loyal to Mali’s unelected government stormed the camp of the “red beret” presidential guard. Residents fled in panic as heavy gunfire echoed from the Djikoroni-Para paratrooper base on the Niger river.

Witnesses reported smoke rising from the base. The “red berets” are loyal to Mali’s former democratic president Amadou Toumani Touré, who was deposed in a coup last March. The elite paratroopers refused to be redeployed to the north of the country, where French and Malian soldiers have been battling Islamist rebels.

Troops loyal to Mali’s new government – led by interim prime minister Dioncounda Traoré – encircled the base with armoured vehicles early on Friday, witnesses said. The soldiers opened fire on women and children who had gathered near the camp gates, killing one and injuring two children, it was reported.

“Since 6am the soldiers arrived in armored cars and pickup trucks, all of them armed to the teeth to attack our base. The women and children tried to stop them from entering the camp. They shot tear gas at us and started shooting volleys in the air,” Batoma Dicko, a woman who lives in the military camp, told Reuters. The camp includes housing for military families. Doctors said that the dead man, in his 20s, was shot in the face.

The incident bodes badly for Mali’s future after French forces pull out. France and Malian troops have succeeded in swiftly recapturing the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, seized last year by al-Qaida allied jihadist fighters. France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, indicated earlier this week that he wants to reduce France’s military presence in Mali, and hand over “in a few weeks” to an African contingent.

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Mali soldiers arrest 2 men with explosives day after suicide bomb attack at checkpoint

The Associated Press reports: Two men with explosives were arrested trying to enter the city of Gao on Saturday, the Malian military said, a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up in an attack that has fueled fears of a militant insurgency in northern Mali.

The two suspected jihadists were in Malian military custody after being arrested at 7 a.m. on a road that leads into northern Mali’s largest city, said military spokesman Modibo Traore.

“The men were stopped at a checkpoint on the road from Bourem,” Traore said of a village that is northwest of Gao.

While Friday’s attack killed only the bomber, it has raised concerns about the future strategy of the militants, who initially appeared to put up little resistance to the French and Malian military advance.

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Letter from Mali: life is beginning to return to normal

Luke Harding writes: Last year Suleiman Kané hid his radio under several crates of fish. He also buried his satellite dish at the bottom of his fishing boat. The Islamists had swept into Gao, and were advancing rapidly across northern Mali. And so Kané stopped listening to music – an offence under sharia law – and avoided the rebels as far as possible.

A year later he and his large family are waiting to go home. The satellite dish is back in its old position, hooked up to a solar panel on the roof. Next to it is a bike, some firewood and a folding chair. His 15-metre-long floating home is moored at Mopti, Mali’s biggest river port. Kané’s two wives, five grownup sons and innumerable grandchildren – two with hacking coughs – are camped on the bank.

It is at Mopti that the shimmering Niger, west Africa’s great river, converges with its tributary, the Bani. West is the languid town of Ségou; north, and a three-day journey by boat, Timbuktu. On the turquoise water, fishermen in wooden pirogues are casting nets. Eagles whirl in the haze. Closer to town, people are washing clothes, mopeds and a shiny blue Mercedes.

French and Malian forces took Timbuktu 10 days ago, turfing out the jihadists who had run the Saharan town since last March. Paris also freed Gao and Kidal. Kané welcomes the return of the French, Mali’s old colonial masters. “I was born in 1939 and I remember the colonial period,” he says. “The French did a good job back then. They were fair.” He adds: “So far as I’m concerned they can stay.”

Everyone here has tales of rebel rule. Isate Kané (no relation to Suleiman) says one of her relatives was killed in Gao by a stray bullet. Kané says she was forced to wear a veil, but didn’t mind too much, since she kept her hands warm under it on chilly mornings. Far worse, she explains, was the predatory sexual behaviour of the jihadists. Most were lighter-skinned Tuareg or Arabs, with one or two black Malians. “One woman crossed the riverbank to bring her fish to market. This was in Gao. Two rebels chased her,” she says. “They wanted to rape her. She ran back to the bank so they shot her with a sniper rifle. She was pregnant.” The rebels took other women as sex-slaves, she says, sometimes killing them. She adds: “Whenever we saw them, we hid.”

Kané and her relatives – about 55 people, crammed on to one slow-moving barge – are waiting to travel north. The women are preparing lunch: a paste made from baobab tree fruit, millet and fish. “We eat fish and sell fish to buy rice,” she says. Nile perch – the Niger’s most delicious variety, known as capitaine – costs 1,500 CFA a kilo (£2); carp is 300 CFA. The Dogon, a tribe of animists, trade fish for baobab fruit, she says.

The river’s inhabitants tend to do the same things their parents have done, with jobs passed down along family lines. The fishermen are Bozo; the boys herding cattle across the waters Fulani; the rice planters Songhai. The Tuareg – blamed by many Malians for the country’s post-independence woes and a series of bitter rebellions against the capital Bamako – are nomads. How can Mali achieve peace? “By killing all the Tuareg,” Kané replies. [Continue reading…]

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Deconstructing the claims that Qatar is supporting al Qaeda in Mali

RUSI Analysis: Claims that Qatar is supporting a range of Al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups in the Sahel are not new. In June 2012 the French satirical magazine Canard Enchaine quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting various groups such as Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports are vague but usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes landing at Gao disgorging arms and even Qatari Special Forces entering the fray.

None of these accusations ring true given the general thrust of Qatari foreign policy. Ironically, however, it is Qatar’s recent actions particularly in Libya that make these accusations seemingly plausible.

Qatar is one of two states (the other being Saudi Arabia) who officially espouse the austere doctrines of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Al-Wahhab, and last year named its state mosque after him. But Qatar is a box full of contradictions. Alcohol is easily available as is pork. Women can drive (nor has this been an issue) and Qatar has the most visible, outspoken and influential female consort in the history of the Arab world. Western education systems are at the heart of the state and there is not even an official mosque in the entire propose-built, multi-billion dollar ‘Education City’ campus housing six American Universities as well as University College London.

Externally Qatar’s policies can appear confused. Support of America by virtue of the two huge US bases in Qatar and significant (usually unwelcome) outreach to Israel in recent years is contrasted with seemingly amicable relations with Iran and support for Hamas and Hizbullah. More recently a record of enormous investment in London and Paris has been contrasted to escalating support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and seemingly murky support of groups in the Sahel. Moreover, Qatar has been outspoken in its sub-state support of various groups in Mali’s regional neighbourhood in the last eighteen months.

A loose narrative has built suggesting that an ever increasingly confident Qatar is now beginning to support a range of ever more extreme Islamists across the region.

Examining exactly what Qatar is doing in Mali is difficult. Qatar never enlightens anyone of its foreign policy strategies or tactics and nor are there sufficient reliable sources of information in and around Mali.

The best one can say is that in addition to a lengthy history of interaction in the region, the Qatar Red Crescent Society increased its capabilities in Mali in 2012 evaluating the state of the plight and the their potential response. This occasionally involved entering Mali from Niger to get to the critical city of Gao. According to an AFP article this in and of itself involved seeking safe passage from the MUJAO, an Al-Qa’ida offshoot.

The very fact that the two organisations came to this safe passage agreement may well be a root cause of much of the subsequent supposition, with many assuming the transit agreement to be a signal of deeper connections. Yet this is what the Red Cross/Crescent does; it sticks to its central tenet of neutrality in a conflict and deals with the realities on the ground by making tactical deals to obtain access when it can. [Continue reading…]

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France’s next move: With Mali’s Islamists on the run, time to talk to the Tuaregs

Bruce Crumley writes: Though long hostile to allied Islamist groups across the Sahel region, Tuareg nationalists have struggled for decades for more freedom and autonomy. Boosted by an influx of weapons from the looted arsenals of slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, they accepted the help of Islamist militias when wresting control of half of Mali last year—only to then see the radicals unilaterally impose their own brand of brutal Sharia rule over stretches of the breakaway region. But with those extremists now scattered and in retreat, calls are now arising for the central government and Tuareg leaders to link up against the common jihadi foe.

“We understand the resistance in Bamako to dealing with Tuareg forces that participated in the recent southern offensive, but the long-term stability of Mali relies on the central government and the Tuaregs negotiating and coming to certain agreements,” says a French government official who declines to be quoted by name. “The Tuaregs made a terrible decision in banding with the Islamists, and Malian anger over the consequences is understandable. But our view is all Tuareg leaders who renounce violence and accept the territorial integrity of Mali should be considered legitimate interlocutors in the political rebuilding process.”

That thinking may take some time to sell—particularly among southern Malians resentful of the Tuaregs separatist insurgency that enabled the Islamists’ rise in the power gap that followed a March 2012 military coup in Bamako. Now, there are already accusations of summary executions and rights violations by Malian forces during France’s anti-Islamist counter-offensive. Following the liberation of northern cities like Gao and Timbuktu, meanwhile, reports circulated that armed forces and locals had begun attacking other residents suspected of having supported or prospered under Islamist rule. As a result, once French forces freed the Tuareg-held town of Kidal Wednesday, military officials called in support of 1,400 Chadian troops—not Malian soldiers—to police the areato avert any vengeance killing.

That precautionary move is doubly significant in Kidal, given the complex Tuareg situation there. The Islamist group Ansar Dine had claimed to control Kidal—though there were no signs of any Islamist fighters when the French arrived there. The previous week, meantime, an influential Ansar Dine leader, Alghabass Ag Intalla, announced he’d bolted the al Qaeda-allied group to found the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA)—a nationalist Tuareg force renouncing “extremism and terrorism.” Shortly after, the secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) offered to assist French troops continue the battle against jihadi militias.

Both the IMA and MNLA also say they’re ready to partake in talks towards a north-south political settlement capable of restoring peace and stability to Mali. Traoré and other central Malian leaders say they may accept negotiating with the MNLA, but have ruled out any cooperation with the IMA and any other Tuareg with past or present ties to extremists. That’s a position Paris is hoping to shift.

AFP reports: France said it carried out major air strikes Sunday near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali’s desert north in a lightning French-led offensive, after a whirlwind visit by President Francois Hollande.

An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centres run by Islamist extremists overnight in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, where French troops took the airport Wednesday and have been working to secure the town itself.

Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the town for the first time Saturday as the rest of the country feted Hollande on his tour, a victory lap that came three weeks into a so far successful intervention to oust the Islamists who occupied northern Mali for 10 months.

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Jazz warrior defending Mali’s values

The New York Times reports: Cheick Tidiane Seck played a concert in Bamako last Saturday, the capital of his native Mali, just before he returned to his home in Paris.

A war was raging in the north of the country, as Malian and French troops bore down on the fabled desert city of Timbuktu that had been held by Tuareg rebels and their Islamist allies since spring. The jihadist fighters, as they retreated, set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts dating from as far back as the 13th century, according to reports that emerged later.

But in the concert hall that night, Mr. Seck, on the piano, made music with other well-known stars of Mali’s jazz scene, playing to an audience of people from all over the country. “There were Tuaregs in the hall, and out in the streets,” Mr. Seck recalled, “and nobody threatened them.”

Sitting at a corner table in the basement of a cafe below his Paris apartment, Mr. Seck was unmistakable: A young Malian waiter stopped by to pay his respects to the 59-year-old music legend. A large man, Mr. Seck looked larger still in a flowing brown robe, upon which he had purposely hung a colorful beaded purse. “It’s Tuareg,” he said.

If Mr. Seck has a message today — a rare moment when the world can locate Mali on a map — it is that his country’s culture must endure, as it has for thousands of years.

But until France intervened last month to stop Islamist forces from moving south to Bamako, Mr. Seck was not so sure Mali itself would survive.

“I was afraid for my country,” he said. “Once I knew that they had conquered all the cities in the north, a chill went down my spine. It was an unspeakable wound.”

In his view, the Islamists’ acts of violence — against people, but also against the ancient culture of Timbuktu — were crimes against humanity. A 15th-century Malian proverb proclaims: “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.”

According to some reports, much of the precious collection of manuscripts assembled in the Ahmed Baba Institute was saved by archivists and local residents before Timbuktu was seized by Islamist rebels last April; the documents remain hidden for fear that the jihadists will return.

But the wanton destruction of the graves of Timbuktu’s Sufi saints, considered idolatrous by orthodox Salafists, is undisputed, like the banning of music, the enforced veiling of women, the floggings and the amputations.

“A people has the right not to be ruled by violence,” Mr. Seck said. “They were going to impose Shariah across the whole country. They were going to destroy what was left of the harmony in the country.”

Now, he believes that danger has receded thanks to a decision by President François Hollande of France to intervene on Jan. 11. “The French knew that they had to do that in order to block this Islamic fundamentalism,” Mr. Seck said. “It must be stopped; they must be stopped.”

“So I say, ‘Bravo, Hollande,”’ he said. “I say, ‘A big bravo,’ and I am not the only one to say that. You can see French and Malian flags flying together all over Bamako.”

Now comes the hard part, as a fragile country tries to pull itself back together. Mr. Seck said he remained optimistic. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Malians welcome French president to Timbuktu

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Inside Gao where Arab jihadis took bloody sharia retribution on Mali’s black Africans

Lindsey Hilsum reports: The jihadis carried out amputations in the sandy square where the residents of Gao used to watch basketball. The men who ruled Gao for nine months, until French and Malian troops drove them out last weekend, replaced the words “Place de l’Indépendence” in the green, red and yellow of the national flag with simple white on black: Place de la Sharia.

A thief would lose his right hand. Those accused of burglary would lose both right hand and left foot. On 21 December last year, people were assembled, as they had been several times before, and told to watch.

“No one was allowed to speak,” said Issa Alzouma. “Then they cut off my hand with a knife.”

Alzouma had been accused of stealing a motorbike, which he denies. At 39, he made a living digging gravel for construction companies. It was enough to support his wife and three children. Now he roams Gao in tattered clothes, the stump of his right arm wrapped in a grubby bandage, a flimsy black plastic bag dangling from his remaining wrist. Inside he keeps a few antibiotics and replacement bandages given by a Red Cross doctor who treated him at Gao hospital a week after his amputation.

“The doctor had to cut in and remove flesh because it was infected,” he said. “Under the bandage you can see my bones. It hurts and I feel as if my bones are coming out.”

Alzouma has no idea how he and his family will survive. “My wife just cries and cries,” he said. His friend Algalas Yatara, who was also accused of stealing a motorbike, carries a sheaf of papers in Arabic in his remaining hand. He thinks it is the judgment but is not quite sure, as neither man can read Arabic.

At least 12 men had hands or feet cut off after MUJAO (Movement for Jihad and Unity), and its allies in AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), took control of Gao last April. The exact number is not known because some were amputated in the military base where no non-jihadi was allowed. The mayor’s office, a few yards from the punishment ground, was turned into a sharia court. Outside, the sand has turned black where the enforcers of hesbah, or justice, ground down cigarettes and whipped those found smoking. Inside, the floor is littered with documents, including a ring-binder with details of the women flogged for not wearing the veil. Family members were made to put a thumbprint to show they acknowledged the punishment and would supervise the accused in future.

Suspects were confined to a small room where they were tied up and beaten, before being brought before Islamic judges, known as marabous, who sat every Monday and Thursday.

Ali Altini and Mohammed Aklini were due to be executed for homosexuality the Friday before last. French air strikes saved their lives, as the jihadis who would have carried out the sentence were killed or fled. The two men, who deny they are gay, were arrested on 12 December, bound, beaten, then interrogated. ” They asked me where the brothels are,” said Altini. “I answered that I didn’t know. Then they asked me to show them where people made pornographic movies. I answered again that I didn’t know.”

According to Altini, his six interrogators were Pakistanis, who communicated through a local translator. Altini and Aklini were arraigned before three marabous, one of whom they believed to be a Tunisian. [Continue reading…]

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The world is facing viral mutations of the human psyche

Wole Soyinka writes: My mind, frankly, was on anything but peace as I entered the United Nations conference hall to participate in a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence event. On that same day – 21 September 2012 – yet another UN resolution had been released on the crisis in Mali. I felt overwhelmed by the ponderousness of the UN machine. That the UN, in association with African political leaders, recognised the danger posed by fundamentalist aggression to the Sahel and west Africa was not in doubt. The sense of urgency, however, lagged so far behind my own that it was a marvel I did not invade the conference hall with a banner, screaming: TAKE BACK MALI – YESTERDAY!

The security council had already set out a “roadmap” for a west African force of intervention in the Sahel – it required the secretary general to report back on “progress” a few months later. This, it struck me, was an instruction not to the secretary general, but to the fundamentalist invaders to report to the world on the progress they would have made in destroying the ancient libraries of Timbuktu; amputating the arms of a few more Malians; and stoning to death deviationists from their “moral code”.

It was an invitation to Ansar Dine’s allies Boko Haram to nudge a few more terminators into Nigeria; demolish a few more educational, cultural and religious institutions; eliminate what was left of the UN presence after its bomb attack on the UN HQ in Abuja; and continue its project of unleashing death and destruction in southern Nigeria.

Before the conference, I had button-holed senior Nigerian officials at every opportunity. None needed any persuasion about the danger to west Africa if the fundamentalist menace were not contained, rapidly. President Jonathan himself, I was assured, was sensitive to the ramifications of Mali’s northern takeover. So were a number of African heads of state. What was lacking was the practical preparedness for action. To any student of the fundamentalist temperament, this imperative of urgent response should be second nature. Africa’s political leadership should be in a state of permanent consciousness – and responsiveness. We are not novices, after all, to the ruthless nature of fundamentalist insurgency, its territorial desperation and, above all, its contempt for humanity. [Continue reading…]

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Rights allegations in Mali cloud visit by France’s Hollande

Reuters reports: Human rights groups said on Friday a French-led offensive against Islamists in Mali had led to civilian deaths in airstrikes and ethnic reprisals by Malian troops, a day before President Francois Hollande was due to visit the country.

France has deployed more than 3,500 ground forces in a lightning three-week campaign that has wrested control of northern Mali’s towns from an al Qaeda-linked alliance.

The aim is to prevent the Islamist fighters from using Mali’s ungoverned desert north to launch attacks in neighboring African countries and the West.

Residents in the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu have greeted their liberation by French troops with joy, after Islamist radicals had destroyed the town’s sacred Sufi mausoleums, burned ancient manuscripts and imposed a harsh form of sharia law, including whippings and amputations.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, however, cited eyewitness reports of extrajudicial killings by Malian government soldiers of dozens of civilians in the central towns of Sevare and Konna.

They said the troops targeted light-skinned Arab and Tuareg ethnic groups associated with the rebels. The Malian military has denied any reprisal killings by its soldiers and the government in Bamako has publicly warned against revenge attacks.

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Sexual violence in Mali casts shadow over peace efforts

Bloomberg reports: Rebels who had conquered northern Mali offered to pay the equivalent of $14 for a 13-year-old girl. When her family said no, they took her anyway.

A week later, she died in captivity, after she was repeatedly raped by a group of armed men.

That incident in April is one of hundreds of documented cases compiled by the United Nations in the past year that shed light on the sexual violence unleashed by insurgents — mostly Touareg separatists rather than al-Qaeda-linked Islamists — during their occupation of a sparsely populated and inhospitable Mali region the size of Texas.

Nine months later, the rebels have melted away into the desert as French intervention troops advance. For the women of the farming and cattle-herding communities, the prospect is that yet another peace deal will ignore the record of rape used as a weapon of war.

“The question of sexual violence is not treated as an urgent question, unfortunately,” Hannah Armstrong, an analyst on security in West Africa. The same Touareg fighters now clamoring for negotiations “carried out raid-style attacks during which animals were stolen, slave-caste women raped repeatedly,” she said in an interview in Bamako, the Malian capital.

A total of 211 cases of sexual violence — including gang rape, sexual slavery, forced marriages and torture — were committed during house-to-house operations or at checkpoints during 2012, according to the Office of the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Historic Timbuktu texts saved from burning

The Wall Street Journal reports: French tanks were closing in on this storied caravan city on the night of Jan. 23, when the al Qaeda-backed militants who had governed Timbuktu since April left a departing blow. They broke into one of the world’s most valuable libraries, ripping centuries-old manuscripts from shelves.

Then they torched these priceless artifacts, in a scene of destruction that horrified scholars around the world.

But in a relief for this beleaguered city, and in a triumph for bibliophiles, the vast bulk of the library was saved by wily librarians and a security guard—with an assist from modern technology.

An estimated 28,000 of the library’s artifacts were smuggled out of town by donkey cart, said Prof. Abdoulaye Cissé and security guard Abba Alhadi, who worked to relocate the documents. Gunmen managed to burn only a few hundred papers, but even those were backed up digitally, said the library’s bookkeepers.

“We knew that what we had here was threatened,” said Mr. Cissé, a history professor and acting director for Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Studies and Islamic Research. “So I said, ‘We’re going to have to start moving them out.’ ”

The rescue mission for some of Africa’s most precious written history represents the latest example of Timbuktu’s collective determination to preserve its heritage, amid a long line of threats to these irreplaceable artifacts. Aside from its 14th-century mud mosques, and a fabled name, Timbuktu houses at least 100,000 ancient manuscripts that date from the 11th century, and account for some of the medieval world’s most sophisticated scholarship. Subjects include medicine, law, astronomy and botany.

Still, the treasures of Timbuktu have been looted and smashed by a succession of invading armies, the most recent being al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. [Continue reading…]

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Mission in Mali far from accomplished

Andy Morgan writes: The National Movement for the Liberation of Azwad (MNLA) are reported to have wrenched control of Kidal back from the Touareg-led Islamist militia Ansar Dine. They also claim to control a number of other strategic towns in northern Mali, including Tessalit and Leré. That’s quite a turn-around for the avowedly secular Touareg nationalist movement who were ousted from the region last June by the Islamist coalition after a bloody gun fight in the city of Gao. Most people thought they were a busted flush, outgunned and outmanoeuvered by better funded, better armed and better disciplined Islamist troops. Not so, it seems.

Although they’re now firmly entrenched in Kidal, the MNLA still fear reprisals from the remnants of the three Islamist groups – AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine – who have held Northern Mali in their puritanical grasp since last April. Mujahedeen who have been fleeing as the main northern cities – Douentza, Gao and Timbuktu – have fallen like nine-pins to the advance of French and Malian forces, are said to be regrouping in the remote Tegharghar mountains north of Kidal. But I doubt they’re planning a counter attack on the town, which has been at the epicentre of all the Touareg uprisings in northern Mali since 1962. The Islamists coalition, or what’s left of it, has already switched from occupation to insurgency mode. Holding cities is no longer part of their strategy.

Somehow, the MNLA has found the finance and backing to take Kidal, from where they will try to negotiate a settlement, even some kind of collaborative partnership with the French in a desperate attempt to avoid their town being handed back to the Malian army and placed under a martial law far worse than the one imposed on it between 1964 and 1990. Either that or Alghabass Ag Intallah, the heir to the chiefdom of the local Ifoghas “nobility” and leader of the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), has decided to let the MNLA back into Kidal because they see a deal with the nationalists as the best way of saving their own skins and avoiding execution/arrest/the ICC as well as the terrible vengeance of the Malian army. Yesterday’s demonstration in the town in favour of the MNLA and against Malian army occupation, with all the summary brutality against Touareg and Arabs that the local population fear it will bring, is clear proof that the secular nationalists are on the rise again and the Islamists are on the run. [Continue reading…]

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French troops in Kidal; 90% of Timbuktu’s manuscripts saved

BBC News reports: The French arrival at Kidal came only 24 hours after securing Timbuktu with Malian forces.

The troops had to secure the streets after hundreds of people looted shops they said had belonged to militant sympathisers.

The retreating Islamist militants were also accused of destroying ancient manuscripts held in the city.

However on Wednesday, Shamil Jeppie, the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project director at the University of Cape Town, said that more than 90% of the 300,000 manuscripts said to be in the region were safe.

Kidal, 1,500km (930 miles) north-east of the capital Bamako, was until recently under the control of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which has strong ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The Islamist militants had taken advantage of a military coup in March last year to impose Sharia in a number of cities in the north.

However, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently split from Ansar Dine, says it is now in charge in Kidal.

The IMA has said it rejects “extremism and terrorism” and wants a peaceful solution.

An IMA spokesman confirmed the French arrival in Kidal and said that its leader was in talks with them.

However, another rebel group, the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), is also influential in the area. It is ethnically driven, fighting mostly for the rights of Mali’s minority Tuareg community.

An MNLA spokesman told the BBC its fighters had entered Kidal on Saturday and found no Islamist militants there.

The MNLA has also said it is prepared to work with the French “to eradicate terrorist groups” in the north but that it would not allow the return of the Malian army, which it accused of “crimes against the civilian population”.

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Video: Mali’s leading musicians unite against Islamists

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Tuareg rebels say they’re now in charge of Kidal

The Associated Press reports: As French and Malian soldiers held control of the fabled desert city of Timbuktu following the retreat of Islamist extremists, Tuareg fighters claimed Tuesday that they seized the strategic city of Kidal and other northern towns.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad — the Tuareg group’s name for northern Mali — appears to have taken advantage of a French-led bombing and ground campaign to dislodge al- Qaida-linked Islamist fighters from the towns in northern Mali.

Phone lines were down in Kidal, making it difficult to independently confirm the group’s claim.

The Tuareg movement said on its website that it was ready to work with French troops and fight terror organizations.

However, it said it would refuse to allow Malian soldiers in Kidal, and the other towns under its control in northeastern Mali, following allegations that the troops killed civilians suspected of having links to the Islamists.

Reuters adds: The International Monetary Fund has approved an $18.4m loan to strife-torn Mali to help the West African nation stabilise its economy over the next 12 months, the IMF said.

It said on Monday that approval of the loan, under its Rapid Credit Facility, should send a signal that Mali’s economy is on the right path, prompting other donors to offer financial assistance to Mali.

“Mali’s economy is traversing a particularly difficult period as a result of the 2011 drought, insurgent attacks in the north of the country and political instability in the wake of the military coup in March 2012,” the IMF said in a statement.

Note that this is just a loan and it’s for an amount that in this case is deemed sufficient to prop up a West African economy, but in the hands of the 1% would buy a townhouse in Greenwich Village.

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British troops to be sent to Mali

The Guardian reports: A major increase in the UK commitment to help French and African forces in Mali and the region has been confirmed by Downing Street and the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, in an urgent statement to the House of Commons.

Amid concerns on the Tory benches that Britain is being drawn into a conflict without an exit strategy, the government said that 200 UK troops would train an African regional force outside Mali, with up to 40 more on an EU training mission inside the country. A further 70 RAF personnel will oversee the use of Sentinel surveillance, to be based in Senegal with 70 supporting crew and technical staff, and 20 will staff a C-17 transport plane for a further three months.

Britain has offered a roll-on, roll-off ferry to help transport French armour to Mali by sea, landing on the African coast. Britain is also offering air-to-air refuelling capacity to operate outside the UK, but based in Britain. It is possible the US will provide air-to-air refuelling.

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