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Terror warning for Timbuktu

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By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Timbuktu

Sleepy, sandy, and famously remote, this ancient town on the south western fringes of the Sahara desert seems an unlikely new frontline in a global war against Islamic extremism.

"We are absolutely safe, and peaceful," said the regional governor, Colonel Mamadou Mangara, strolling through the fiery heat of Timbuktu's gloat-cluttered central market. "This is all an exaggeration."

governor
We are absolutely safe, and peaceful
Col Mamadou Mangara
Timbuktu governor

But following a string of kidnappings and deadly attacks across the vast, and largely ungoverned region - straddling parts of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria - by an Al Qaeda affiliate known as Al Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM), there is a growing international security focus on the desert and the scrubby band of terrain just below it called the Sahel.

"There is a very real and serious security threat," warned Britain's Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Ivan Lewis, on a recent visit to Mali. "If we don't act now to support Mali and its neighbours in my view the situation will… deteriorate. We must act quickly to nip this in the bud." The American government has now issued a travel advisory strongly urging its citizens to avoid the whole of northern Mali.

Standing on a dune to the west of Timbuktu, squinting against the blinding sun, Colonel Gaston Damango, acknowledged that his forces lacked sufficient equipment to patrol such a vast region. AQIM groups, he said, "move fast and never stay in one place."

In June, the militants drove from the desert into the town itself in a convoy of six pickup trucks and killed a senior army intelligence officer in his home. Malian soldiers and a local militia pursued AQIM back into the desert and claim to have killed several dozen fighters, but lost more than thirty of their own men in the process.

Mansur Al Mubarak, 22, joined the Arab militia that pursued AQIM. He said the group appeared to be well armed, with sophisticated night-vision equipment. "We will not rest until our land is rid of them," he said, while acknowledging that smugglers in Timbuktu continued to maintain links with AQIM.

colonel
Col Gaston Damango

Colonel Damango played down the whole incident as "score settling" - and implied that the intelligence officer killed in Timbuktu had been targeted because a private business deal with the militants had gone sour. He also insisted that the region was now secure and peaceful, but "if the threat is real, then the world's great powers have a duty to… give us the means to fight it before it is too late. We are a poor country and the Sahara is vast. We need vehicles, equipment…"

The United States has already responded with the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership - a five year, $500 million programme targeting nine African states. The partnership includes both military assistance - training, intelligence and equipment - and non-military help in sectors like education and job training.

"We have to tackle this in a multi-faceted way," said Britain's Ivan Lewis. "We know Al Qaeda is looking to spread its activities in areas it believes state security is inadequate and weak, and the population is poor. It wants to appeal to that population and offer welfare initially. We (need to combine) security with development."

NORTH MALI TRAVEL WARNING
Mali map showing UK foreign office advice
The UK government advises against travel to most of northern Mali

But that's proving to be a hard balance to strike in Timbuktu. British and American travel advisories have led to a dramatic fall in the number of foreign tourists. Timbuktu's governor, Mamadou Mangara said 7203 visited the town in 2008, but only 3700 between January and October 2009.

Throughout Timbuktu there is a broad consensus that the threat is being exaggerated. Local tribes remain fiercely opposed to "the Salafists" as AQIM are known, and most incidents have taken place either outside the country or deep in the desert.

"I'm sorry, I present my condolences (to the family of Edwin Dyer, the British tourist kidnapped in Niger, and executed in Mali last June) but he was not kidnapped here. Timbuktu is absolutely safe. We are in peace and tranquillity and the only thing that can make a nightmare for us is poverty."

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