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UK issues terror warning for travel to Mali's Timbuktu

By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Timbuktu

Dromedaries in Timbuktu, file image
Timbuktu has long held an exotic appeal for tourists

The UK government is urging tourists not to visit Timbuktu in northern Mali because of the threat of terrorism.

The remote town is included on an updated travel advisory issued by the Foreign Office.

A British tourist, Edwin Dyer, was killed in Mali in June by a group which claims links to al-Qaeda.

But local officials insist the threat is being exaggerated. They say such warnings are already having a crippling effect on the tourism industry.

The vast area of the Sahara Desert is now being used as a hiding place for a relatively small number of militants from the group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In recent months they have kidnapped several Westerners for ransom - sometimes seizing them in foreign countries and taking them into Mali - and fought battles against government and militia forces.

US action

The Foreign Office says the threat of terrorism, and specifically kidnapping, is now high in Timbuktu. Travellers are being urged to avoid all of northern Mali.

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

On a visit to the region, Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis said there was a real danger the security situation could deteriorate.

"We have to tackle this in a multi-faceted way," he said.

"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."

But on the sleepy, sandy streets of Timbuktu, people insist the threat is being exaggerated.

They say most incidents have happened far from the town itself.

"We are absolutely safe and peaceful," said regional governor Col Mamadou Mangara.

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

But he added: "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 US has already responded with the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership - a five year, $500m programme targeting nine African states.

But the regional governor says poverty, not terrorism, is the biggest threat.

And local officials argue that negative travel advisories are worsening poverty.

Col Mangara said 7,203 tourists visited the town in 2008, but only 3,700 between January and October 2009.

A special festival is being held next month in the hope of encouraging visitors.



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New realities for ancient Timbuktu
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US arms Mali to battle al-Qaeda
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Profile: Al-Qaeda in North Africa
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Country profile: Mali
04 May 11 |  Country profiles

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