Simmering ethnic tensions boiled over in Mali on Tuesday as the army hunted down suspected Islamist fighters and residents took revenge on shops belonging to the Tuareg and Arab minorities.
Reports from the Saharan city of Timbuktu said dozens of residents had attacked property owned by Tuareg and Arab traders whom they suspected of collaborating with the rebels. The al-Qaida-allied fighters evacuated the town last week as French and Malian forces closed in.
There were fears that the Tuareg civilians could now be caught up in a bloody backlash, both from angry neighbours and from the army.
Malian soldiers were deployed in Timbuktu on Tuesday but made little effort to stop widespread ethnic-based looting.
Tuareg rebels have waged an on-off secessionist war for decades against the Mali government in Bamako. The secular Tuareg nationalist MNLA militia has been fighting for an independent republic, but has recently said it supports France’s military intervention.
Another Islamist group, however, Ansar Dine, includes many Tuareg fighters, and spearheaded last year’s audacious drive by the rebels to capture Mali’s north. It is closely allied with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Its leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, is Tuareg.
Consequently, many Malians now blame the Tuareg for the Islamist capture last year of the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
“They are traitors,” Amadu Traore, an English teacher from the town of Youwarou, near Timbuktu, said on Tuesday, when asked what he thought of the Tuareg. He added: “They are also racists. They have lighter skins than us. They look down on us black Africans.”
Traore claimed that the nomadic Tuareg – who make up 11% of the population in the north – were perennially dissatisfied and would never accept the authority of the Mali state. “They have been fighting for independence since colonial times,” he said.
He added: “When the MNLA was on its own it wasn’t powerful. Then it joined with al-Qaida. It become more powerful.”
Tuareg civilian leaders have long complained of discrimination, too few jobs for Tuareg youth and a woeful lack of development in the north. They have also vociferously dissociated themselves from AQIM.
The government has failed to implement a 2006 peace accord, they add, which was supposed to improve their opportunities.
Some Malians have sympathy with the Tuareg, who are dispersed across Saharan Africa, and whose culture and itinerant lifestyle are disappearing. “It isn’t all Tuareg who have been involved in trouble. Some Tuareg are clean and have had nothing to do with the rebellion,” Mahamud Handuli, a trader in the Niger river town of Mopti, said.
The Tuareg are likely to play a key role in any lasting solution in northern Mali – or lack of one. On Tuesday, the MNLA leadership said it had taken control of Kidal, the third northern town previously under Islamist rebel control. The Islamists had left, it said.
The MNLA said it was ready to join the French-led campaign against “terrorist organisations” but would not allow the Mali army to march on Kidal. It also asked for direct negotiations with the Malian government about its autonomy demands.
The French military – which took Timbuktu over the weekend and Gao late last week – has indicated it is unlikely to push up to Kidal, a remote desert area hundreds of miles from its current position.
Instead the job will probably be left to troops from Chad, part of a poorly equipped African force supporting the Mali army. It remains to be seen what welcome they will get. France has signalled it wants to hand longer-term security operations to African soldiers, now the major phase of its operation is over.
Mali troops carried out house-to-house searches in both Gao and Timbuktu on Tuesday, uncovering arms and explosives abandoned by retreating Islamists. In Gao, soldiers arrested at least five suspected rebels and sympathisers, turned in by locals, and uncovered weapons and counterfeit cash.
There was confirmation that around 2,000 ancient manuscripts had been burned in the Timbuktu’s Ahmad Babu Institute, torched by retreating al-Qaida fighters. Some reports suggested, however, that a large number of manuscripts had survived, with staff spiriting them away to Bamako before AQIM swept into town last March.
Since France’s president, François Hollande, dispatched 3,700 troops to Mali on 11 January, there has been little fighting. The rebels appear to be hiding in the deserts and savannah around Gao and Timbuktu, with others heading to Kidal and the border with Algeria.
The AQIM leader, Mokhtar BelMokhtar – who carried out the murderous attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria – is believed to have been holed up at one point in the Adrar Tirharhar mountains, halfway between the towns of Kidal and Tessalit, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.
Speaking in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius said French forces would remain in Mali “as long as necessary”.
At the same time Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, announced his government would aim to organise “credible” elections for 31 July, a demand made by major western backers of the anti-rebel operation. The military toppled the previous president in a coup in March.