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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK
US security angers Mali's merchants
The road in front of the US embassy
The road in front of the US embassy is closed to cars
By Joan Baxter in Bamako

The area around the US embassy in the heart of the market in the Malian capital, Bamako, has all the makings of a battle front.

Apart from the roving cameras mounted on the walls to monitor pedestrian traffic around the embassy, there are also barriers that close the roads to vehicular traffic, manned by Malian watchmen, Republican Guards and numerous secret service agents in sunglasses.


They wonder why they have enemies. They create their own enemies. We are their enemies now.

Mamadou Wague, computer shop owner

And the day after the devastating attacks in the US, American officials began to erect yet a new set of barriers, ignoring an order from the Malian government earlier this year that the work be stopped.

Robin Yeager, Public Affairs Officer at the embassy, admits that there was no written permission for the most recent construction of still more barriers.

Inside barriers

But she says there was "verbal agreement" from the Malian government after the World Trade Center tragedy.

Hundreds of merchants who had the misfortune to find their shops inside the barriers erected around the embassy in 1998, after the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, are furious.

US embassy construction work
Another barrier is being erected around the embassy

For the past three years, they have been requesting compensation for business lost because of the barriers, but to no avail.

They say they have been subjected to further humiliation as embassy security agents search all the merchandise they bring in to stock their shelves in shops where few clients bother to come these days.

"Many have gone bankrupt and left," says Ousmane Sall, the elderly owner of a commercial building just across the street from the embassy, inside the barriers. "I bought this building on credit in 1996, and I'm going bankrupt like all my creditors."

'Better access'

The merchants who have weathered the past three years say they have remained only because they cannot afford to move.

Mr Sall says the construction of new barriers is on his deeded property, will make it impossible to even open the doors to shops in his building.

Robin Yeager insists the barriers are on public land and says they will provide "better access to the area and also more security for the merchants, so we don't get blown up on top of them, as happened in Nairobi and New York."

She says that the US embassy has "no programmme, funds or projects" to compensate any merchants.

Letter of sympathy

The merchants are having none of it. They say they remained quiet for one week, even sending a letter of sympathy to the US ambassador to Mali following the attacks in the United States.

They say they cannot understand why America, the richest country in the world, will make no gesture to help impoverished merchants in Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, when it is American security causing their problems.

Ruins of US embassy in Nairobi
The US embassy in Nairobi was in the city centre

"They wonder why they have enemies," says Mamadou Wague, who has a small computer shop in the affected area. "They create their own enemies. We are their enemies now."

In the past week, riot police have been called to the area on two occasions, to restore order when tempers boiled over and the merchants began pelting construction workers around the embassy with stones.

Special Malian security forces stationed around the embassy are, as one witness describes them, "trigger happy" and "over-zealous."

Confiscated

Myself and another BBC journalist who approached the merchants were arrested by the Republican Guard and our recording equipment confiscated, despite protests from embassy officials.

Our release came only after four hours at the central police station, where police superiors admitted that the situation around the embassy was "tense" and the Malian security forces were particularly nervous because of pressure on them to protect the US embassy.

Many people in Bamako complain bitterly that the US embassy has yet to relocate away from the busy market area.

They feel it endangers hundreds of thousands of lives every day.

Robin Yeager says plans are afoot to construct a new embassy in Bamako, but admits that it may take years to secure the land and construct a new building.

For the time being, tension remains high and the area around the embassy is anything but inviting for idle passers-by, shoppers - or journalists.

See also:

14 Sep 01 | Africa
Malian Muslims flex their muscle
22 Nov 00 | Africa
Mali's monumental folly?
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Mali
25 Jul 01 | Africa
Timeline: Mali
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