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Sun Dec 21 19:15:05 SAST 2014

Mali faces a new threat

David Blair in Timbuktu | 11 February, 2013 00:07
French soldier patrols in the northern city of Gao
When the French troops leave, Mali's ethnic groups are likely to go to war Picture: FRANCOIS RIHOUAY/REUTERS
Image by: JOE PENNEY / REUTERS

In the heart of Timbuktu's once bustling market, shop after shop is empty and abandoned. Since French troops expelled al-Qaeda- affiliated Islamists from this ancient city in northern Mali, almost every business owned by an Arab has been looted.

Just as Europe's liberation from the Nazis was followed by the persecution of collaborators, so Timbuktu's deliverance from al-Qaeda has a sordid and vengeful side.

Almost every Arab has been expelled from the city, most of them fleeing to refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania. Mali's bitter ethnic divisions have been inflamed by Timbuktu's 10-month occupation by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its extremist allies.

Even if France's intervention can defeat the Islamists, piecing together a country torn apart by ethnic rivalry between the Tuaregs and Arabs of the north, and the largely black African south, will be the task of a generation.

Unless Mali can be rebuilt, the victory over the terrorist group is likely to create not a lasting peace but a temporary reprieve.

Timbuktu's Arabs were once the city's commercial class, owning and running the biggest shops and businesses. But all are assumed to have supported the al-Qaeda occupation. Mobs have duly taken their revenge by pillaging their businesses and homes.

Perhaps 3000 Arabs lived in Timbuktu before al-Qaeda and its allies captured this trading centre in March last year. A community with a history as long as the city itself has now been efficiently "cleansed" in the space of a few days, all under the nose of French troops and the Malian authorities.

Mohammed Ami, 23, believes that he and his family are the last Arabs still living in Timbuktu. In the days after French forces arrived a fortnight ago, all his friends and relatives fled.

"My mother called from Algeria to ask if I am alive," he said. "But I was born here. I'm not going anywhere. If I'm going to be killed, I will be killed here. This is the place I know. I will stay here."

Ami still lives in his flat-roofed home with his wife, Maya, 16, and their two daughters, Amira, two, and Mosoud, four months. H is wife's family has left. All of his Arab neighbours have also gone.

As far as Ami knows, no Arab has been killed or injured. Instead, they have been forced out by the wholesale destruction of their livelihoods. Ami's shop, at which he sold food and clothes, has been stripped bare.

"Some of my neighbours saw what was coming and took their stock away. But I was too confident and I did not," said Ami.

Ami's business was pillaged on the same day the French troops arrived. When he arrived for work the following morning he found his shop reduced to an empty shell .

In this way the Songhai-speaking black Africans who form the majority of Timbuktu's 60000 inhabitants - and who suffered most during the Islamist occupation - took their revenge.

Arabs have not been the only targets of their anger: most of the city's Tuaregs have also fled, leaving the black Africans the masters of Timbuktu.

By hounding and expelling the Arabs and Tuaregs, however, they could be sowing the seeds of future conflict. For decades the Tuaregs have been fighting a guerrilla war to seize independence for northern Mali, which they call "Azawad" .

Behind this lies the deep division between north and south. When Mali achieved independence from France in 1960, the largely Tuareg and Arab north found itself sharing a country with the black African south.

Every government in the capital, Bamako, was dominated by black Africans, who were accused of monopolising power and draining wealth from the north.

In 2011 the Tuaregs formed a guerrilla army - the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad - with the goal of winning independence.

In the aftermath of the French intervention against the Islamists, experts fear another war, this time waged by Tuaregs against the Arabs and the black Africans.

At stake will be control of the north and the fate of lucrative trans-Saharan smuggling routes, used to run cocaine to Europe. - © The Sunday Telegraph

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