Timbuktu, Mali: Hundreds of people looted shops Tuesday in Mali’s fabled Timbuktu, newly freed from Islamists, as global donors pledged over $455 million for a French-led drive to expel the radicals from the north.
Life in the ancient desert city started returning to normal after French and Malian troops on Monday entered the town which had for months been subjected to brutal Islamic law, but soon a large angry crowd set to pillaging.
They plundered stores they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians who they accuse of supporting the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists during their 10-month rule over the ancient centre of Islamic learning.
The looters took everything from arms and military communications equipment to televisions, food and furniture, emptying shops in minutes.
In the suburb of Abaradjou, a man living in a former bank converted by the Islamists into a “comittee of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice”, was dragged out by a hysterical crowd who then pillaged the building, taking even office chairs.
The bearded middle-aged man was arrested by Malian troops. “He is an Islamist”, one soldier said, as other troops turned their weapons towards the crowd to prevent them from lynching the man.
The mob yelled: “He is not from here, he is a terrorist!”
Malian soldiers put an end to the looting in the middle of the morning.
“We will not let people pillage. But it is true that weapons were found in some shops,” an officer said on condition of anonymity.
International donors pledge $455 million for Mali
African leaders and international officials meanwhile pledged over $455 million (€340 million) at a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.
A woeful lack of cash and logistical resources has hampered deployment of nearly 6,000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) which is expected to take over the offensive from the French army.
The French swept to Mali’s aid on 11 January as the Islamists advanced south towards the capital Bamako, amid rising fears the occupied zone could become a haven for terrorists.
So far, just 2,000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger, many of them from Chad whose soldier contribution is independent from the AFISMA force. The bulk of fighting has been borne by some 2,900 French troops.
Britain, which has already provided transport planes to support the French mission, on Tuesday offered to contribute up to 40 personnel for a European Union training mission in Mali, and up to 200 for a separate training force in neighbouring English-speaking West African nations.
After claiming back control of territory along the curve of the Niger River, the far northern town of Kidal is the biggest goal remaining for the troops.
Many of the Islamists who fled their strongholds before the soldiers arrived are believed to have melted away into the hills surrounding the town 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.
Early on in the campaign to dislodge them, the Islamists said their withdrawal — into harsh terrain where they are hard to track — was merely a tactical retreat.
Amid the euphoria over the French-led troops’ victory in Timbuktu, shock spread over reports the fleeing Islamists had torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages.
Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, speaking from the capital Bamako, confirmed accounts of the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research.
“It’s a real cultural crime,” he said.
Set up in 1973, the centre housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali’s culture ministry. However experts believe many of the documents may have been smuggled out and hidden when the crisis began.
Radical Islamists seized Timbuktu 10 months ago as they took control of Mali’s desert north in the chaos that followed a military coup last March.
They forced women in Timbuktu to wear veils, and those judged to have violated their strict version of Islamic law were whipped and stoned. The militants also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.
Political instability following the coup has plagued Bamako, and raised fears for the nation’s ability to deal with the crisis in its north.
On Tuesday Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore said he hoped to hold “transparent and credible” elections by 31 July. AFP