Islamists impose sharia in Mali’s Timbuktu
Mali’s crisis deepened Wednesday, as officials in the fabled northern city of Timbuktu confirmed that the Islamic rebel faction that seized control of the town over the weekend has announced it will impose sharia law.
Rebels in the country’s distant north have taken advantage of the power vacuum created last month when renegade soldiers in the capital of Bamako overthrew the nation’s democratically elected leader. In the chaos that followed the March 21 coup, they advanced on strategic towns in the north, including the ancient city of Timbuktu, located over 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the capital.
The ethnic Tuareg rebels included a secular faction fighting for independence, and an Islamic wing, Ansar Dine, whose reclusive leader called a meeting of all the imams in the city on Tuesday to make his announcement.
“He had the meeting to make his message to the people known, that sharia law is now going to be applied,” said the Mayor of Timbuktu Ousmane Halle, who was reached by telephone. “When there is a strongman in front of you, you listen to him. You can’t react,” he said, when asked what the reaction was of the imams of a historic town known for its religious pluralism and its moderate interpretation of Islam.
“Things are going to heat up here. Our women are not going to wear the veil just like that,” said the mayor.
Don’t bet on it. They’ll veil up soon enough when the rapes and beheadings begin.
The rebels launched their insurgency in January, saying they wanted to establish an independent Tuareg homeland in the north, known as the Azawad. They only succeeded in taking small towns until March 21, when disgruntled soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the distant capital of Bamako, overthrowing the democratically elected president.
In the confusion that followed the coup, the rebels launched a new offensive and succeeded in taking the capitals of the three main northern provinces, including Kidal, which fell last Friday, Gao on Saturday and Timbuktu on Sunday.
“The NMLA has reached the end of its military operations for the liberation of the territory of the Azawad,” said Assarid, speaking by telephone from Paris.
“Since the day before yesterday when our units reached Douentza which we consider to be the frontier of the Azawad,” he said, referring to a town some 375 miles from Bamako, “the military offensive is declared over.”
Assarid’s group is the largest rebel group involved in the offensive, but it is not the only one, and in the three main towns in the north, local officials say they cannot be sure which of the rebel armies has the upper hand. Western observers have expressed concern over the presence of an Islamist faction called Ansar Dine, which planted its ominous black flag in all three of the provincial capitals. This week, the group announced it was imposing Sharia law in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
The mayor of Timbuktu said nearly all of the estimated 300 Christians based in the city fled after Ansar Dine’s spiritual chief Iyad Ag Ghali gave an interview on local radio outlining the tenets of Sharia law: Women are to be covered at all times, thieves will have their hands cut off and adulterers will be stoned.
On Thursday, the Ansar Dine faction attacked the Algerian consulate in Gao and took hostage its employees, including the consul, according to an Algerian diplomat in Bamako who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak the press. It was unclear why the faction had attacked the consulate, though Algeria has aggressively fought Islamic extremists on its own soil, including AQIM, which has its roots in Algeria.
In Abidjan, where the military chiefs were meeting, the head of Ivory Coast’s army said that the possible link between the rebels and terrorism is reason enough for a possible military intervention.
“The advance of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad, associated with terrorist groups like AQIM and Ansar Dine and others, gives sufficient reason to the entire region to be put on notice,” said Gen. Soumaila Bakayoko.
I would be quite amazed if any West African coalition, aided by French logistical support, moves into Mali to push back the rebels.
Meanwhile, 2 of those 300 Christians who got out tell their story to the UK press:
Mrs. English’s Wild Ride [ apologies to Mr. Toad ]
A British couple have made a dramatic escape from Timbuktu after the town fell to al-Qaeda backed fighters following the military coup in Mali, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
Neil Whitehead and Diane English fled across an 850-mile expanse of desert with the help of nomadic militiamen and African soldiers to reach Nouakchott, the capital of neighbouring Mauritania. They are now hoping to take sanctuary in the city’s French embassy.
The couple, who owned and ran a budget hotel in Timbuktu, were caught up in the fighting as the Malian army fled and Islamic extremists took control of the city following a coup that overthrew the country’s government.
They decided to make their perilous escape after learning that al-Qaeda had put a price on their heads.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph after reaching Noukachott, Mrs English said: “Its been a very long journey with barely any sleep. We’ve moved across the desert in three old army trucks but we are very lucky to get out and very grateful to those that helped us.
“We are tired and desperately need a shower but we have our dog with us and we hope our truck with all our possessions is going to follow us soon.”
Reports from Timbuktu said al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and local hardline clerics of the Ansar al-Dine movement had imposed strick Islamic law on the town. The black flag of al-Qaeda was flying on the turrets of its ancient mosques and women had been ordered to wear burkas outdoors.
“My friends say they have been ordered to stop smoking and the women have been told to cover up,” Mrs English said. “I don’t think we’ll be going back anytime soon.”
Good for them for finally getting out. And for taking their dog.
The Tuareg force planted its flag in the ancient city, a day after it took control of the garrison town of Gao, which hosts the largest military base in Mali’s north. The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) has capitalised on the lack of national authority after a coup last month when Mali army officers ousted the president, Amadou Toure.
On Friday, the rebels took Kidal, the regional capital. If Timbuktu falls, they rebels will control most of Mali’s Sahara desert region.
They have vowed to rule the area with Islamists in opposition to the junta in Bamako, the national capital. The city of Timbuktu, famous for its mud-walled mosques, is more than 1,000 years old and was the main trading centre for Tuareg nomads bringing salt from the desert, and selling ivory and slaves. Once a centre of learning, the town, with 50,000 people, has become synonymous with mythical places, with a third of Britons even unaware that it is a real place, according to a recent survey.
So there are at least 3 or 4 different groups fighting in Mali. Typical African muddle. Expect Al Q to come out on top. With the loss of Mali, nearly all of northern Africa is in the hands of islamists, from the borders of Nigeria to the Gaza Strip. Caliphate anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
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