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FT: Africa: The taking of Timbuktu

Author: Xan Rice
June 1, 2012

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With Mali's north under rebel control, fears are growing that a breakaway Islamist state could emerge, writes Xan Rice at the Financial Times.

Near the banks of the Niger, where old men hawk slabs of salt carved from the Sahara and sent by boat from the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, Abdul Moussa explains how his tranquil life has been turned upside down.

First, the rebels looted the office of the local charity he runs, taking vehicles, furniture and air conditioners. Then they told the 56-year-old Muslim that the laws he had grown up with had changed. There was to be no smoking and no alcohol. No watching television, listening to music or playing football. Men were to wear their trousers above the ankle. Women were forbidden from walking alone or uncovered.

Alarmed by the proclamations of the "Barbus" – the bearded ones, as some residents call the militants – Mr Moussa put his wife and children in an old Mercedes and sent them to the distant capital of Bamako. With that, they joined an exodus of about 400,000, more than a quarter of northern Mali's population, who have fled their homes this year. Mr Moussa stayed on for the sake of his mother, "who was born in Timbuktu in 1923" and had lived there ever since. Last Friday, they gave in and boarded a bus for Mopti, the first big town outside the occupied north.

"The rebels did not shoot anyone," says Mr Moussa, who asked that his real name not be used. "But they are killing us in another way."

It is nearly two months since northern Mali fell to militants from the Tuareg ethnic group, a Berber people that has a significant presence in the area and has long complained of neglect and misrule by the central government. But what initially appeared to be a quest for a secular homeland has turned into something much more dangerous, for Mali and far beyond: the possibility of an Islamist-aligned mini-state that could offer a base to the jihadist groups and criminal gangs that roam the Sahara

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