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Military success in Mali raises fear of sectarian revenge attacks

Published time: January 30, 2013 17:30
Edited time: January 31, 2013 07:05

Looters crowd to get into a shop in the streets of Timbuktu on January 29, 2013.(AFP Photo / Eric Feferberg)

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As French, Malian and troops from other African countries enter the key northern Malian towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, reports are emerging of revenge attacks against the Islamists and some of the local Tuareg and Arab population.

As Malian and French forces closed in and retook Gao last weekend virtually unopposed, residents have been hunting down and beating up suspected Islamist extremists who did not have time to flee into the desert. Malian troops then bundled the suspected terrorists into a truck.

Members of a youth militia called the Gao Patrolmen, went house to house hunting for suspected Islamists.

“They have gone into homes to hide, so we’ve been rounding them up to hand them to the military,” Abdul Karim Samba, a spokesman for the group told AP.

For almost a year al-Qaida linked extremists have controlled the town, where they swiftly introduced Sharia law, banning music and carrying out public executions and amputations.

Troops from Chad, one of the African nations which has sent troops to help the Malian government and the French, were patrolling the streets, backed up by French soldiers overnight.

Reports from Timbuktu say that residents have also attacked property there owned by Arab and Tuareg traders who are suspected of collaborating with the Islamic rebels.

There were also reports Tuesday of widespread looting of shops in Timbuktu, which belonged to Arabs, with the Malian army unable to control the anger of many residents towards the Islamists. Many black African locals connect Arabs, who have lived in the town for hundreds of years – to the extreme Islamists because of their appearance and religion.

Gonzalo Wancha, a freelance journalist in Mali, who was travelling north from Timbuktu with French and Malian soldiers, told RT that he saw evidence of war crimes committed against the local population. He said that residents of the town of Sevare had been murdered by Malian soldiers and then thrown into a well, used by locals for drinking water. He also said that there has been evidence of extra judicial killings. Many local Tuaregs and Arabs are being persecuted for allegedly collaborating with al-Qaeda, he added.

Whilst it is too early to say exactly what has happened in Mali, it is inevitable that there will be civilian casualties in such a campaign in a country as poor as Mali where the rule of law has never been strictly enforced, Lode Vanoost, an international consultant and former deputy speaker of the Belgian parliament told RT. 

“First of all the Malian army does hold a grudge against the people who ousted them from the northern part of the country and secondly these soldiers are very low paid with very little armaments, they are not really a regular army in that sense. Mali is a very destitute country; it’s always the same tragedy.  This country needs our support yes, this country needs our help but why is it this help always comes in the form of military intervention?” He said.

Last night French forces also flew into the northern desert town of Kidal, one of the last strongholds for the Islamists.

“The French arrived at 9:30 pm [Tuesday] aboard four planes. Afterwards they took the airport and then entered the town and there was no combat,” Haminy Maiga, the interim president of the Kidal region told AP.

3Douentza resident Hamidou Dicko stands next to a charred vehicle hit by French air strikes in the remains of a hotel in Douentza January 29, 2013. The hotel was used as a base for Islamists and was hit by French air strikes over a week ago. (Reuters/Joe Penney)
3Douentza resident Hamidou Dicko stands next to a charred vehicle hit by French air strikes in the remains of a hotel in Douentza January 29, 2013. The hotel was used as a base for Islamists and was hit by French air strikes over a week ago. (Reuters/Joe Penney)

Islamists hijack old tribal differences

The Tuareg are Berbers who have lived a nomadic life across the Sahel and Sahara regions of north and west Africa for hundreds of years and make up 11% of the population of northern Mali.

They populate the desert and semi desert areas of northern Mali and have always viewed themselves as different from the black Africans who live in the South and west of the country.

Tuareg rebels have been waging an on-off secessionist war for decades against the Mali government in the capital Bamuko, situated in the south east of the country.

But the Tuareg movement is split into different factions. The secular Tuareg nationalist militia (MNLA) has been fighting for an independent northern republic and has recently said that its supports the French military intervention.

But Another group, the IslamistAnsar Dine, which includes many Tuareg fighters, which spearheaded last year’s successful attempt to take the north of Mali, has close links to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM is a terrorist organization, which aims to overthrow the Algerian government and create an Islamist state.

As a result, many Malians now blame the Tuareg for the capture last year of the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.

“They are traitors. They are also racists. They have lighter skins than us. They look down on us black Africans,” Amadu Traore, an English teacher from Youwarou, near Timbuktu told the Guardian Tuesday.

A Malian tries to break the lock off a store front as looters and residents stand by in the streets of Timbuktu on January 29, 2013. (AFP Photo/Eric Feferberg)
A Malian tries to break the lock off a store front as looters and residents stand by in the streets of Timbuktu on January 29, 2013. (AFP Photo/Eric Feferberg)

“They have been fighting for independence since colonial times. When the MLNA was on its own it wasn’t powerful. Then it joined with al-Qaida it became more powerful,” he added.

Trarore claimed the Tuareg would never accept the authority of the Mali state.

Tuareg civilian leaders have repeatedly distanced themselves from AQIM and complain that they have suffered discrimination from the central Malian government.

They say the government failed to implement a 2006 peace deal, which was supposed to improve their opportunities.

The MNLA said it was ready to work with French forces in the north against “terrorist organizations” but would not allow the Malian army to enter Kidal and wants negotiations with the Malian government about autonomy for the region.

With the fall of kidal, Islamists who have taken refuge in the mountainous desert regions near the Algerian border will need to be flushed out.

Although the French have said they will remain in Mali for as long as necessary, at some point control will need to be handed over to Malian forces. Meanwhile, France has been pushing for an African Union backed force, the International support mission to Mali (Afisma) to take control of Malian towns.

Although there have been early successes in the military campaign, analysts are warning against calling the mission complete, Lindsay German from Stop the War coalition told RT.

“They have been able to bomb, they have been able therefore to take a number of towns, which were controlled by the rebels in Mali, but most people’s assessment is that this is not the end of the fighting or the end of the war, that the rebels will disappear into the desert, will regroup, will appear in other towns and the situation will continue,” she said.

Malian youths restrain an alleged shop looter on January 30, 2013.(AFP Photo / Sia Kambou)
Malian youths restrain an alleged shop looter on January 30, 2013.(AFP Photo / Sia Kambou)
A Malian soldier trys to disperse looters in the streets of Timbuktu on January 29, 2013. (AFP Photo/Eric Feferberg)
A Malian soldier trys to disperse looters in the streets of Timbuktu on January 29, 2013. (AFP Photo/Eric Feferberg)
Malian youths restrain an alleged shop looter on January 30, 2013 (AFP Photo/Sia Kambou)
Malian youths restrain an alleged shop looter on January 30, 2013 (AFP Photo/Sia Kambou)