Food stocks low, fuel hard to find: Mali’s misfortunes worsen as al-Qaeda arrives

The Times

Mali’s two-week-old junta rejected international calls to relinquish power yesterday as sanctions intended to force the new regime to step down began to bite and Islamists cemented their grip in the country’s turbulent north.

In his first comments since the embargo was imposed, the coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, warned that the ousted president, Amadou Toumani Toure, could be charged with “high treason and financial wrongdoing”. He announced that a meeting to discuss Mali’s future would take place tomorrow.

Amid fears that Islamic extremists were taking advantage of the political upheaval, three of al-Qaeda’s leaders were said to have headed to the ancient trading city of Timbuktu, where Sharia was being imposed and women were being told to wear veils.

The sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States(Ecowas) are intended to cripple Mali’s economy and turn public opinion against the leaders of the largely bloodless coup. In a further sign of world condemnation, the US and African Union last night imposed a travel ban on the coup leaders. The AU also froze their assets.

The junta has refused to bow to demands that it should restore the constitution and hand power to a transitional government. Instead, Captain Sanogo has insisted on overseeing a return to democracy himself and refused to set a timetable for ceding power.

Although few Malians were sad to see the back of Mr Touré, who ushered in an era of unparalleled democracy but also oversaw nepotism and corruption on an ever grander scale, many are now turning against Captain Sanogo.

All imports to the landlocked country have ceased and fuel stocks, all of which come from neighbouring Ivory Coast and Senegal, are expected to run out within days. “We don’t have our own petrol. It’s all imported,” Bathily Seye, the owner of a chain of petrol stations, said. “There is absolutely nothing here. In two days, my pumps will run out.”

Blackouts, already lasting ten hours a day in parts of the capital, Bamako, are expected to grow even longer when the state-owned power utility stops receiving the 16 tanker trucks of fuel it needs to run its generators every day.

Bank tellers are also expecting to run out of hard currency after the Central Bank of West African States froze Mali’s account.

The sanctions could hardly come at a worse time for Mali, which is in the grip of a food shortage. Another unfolding humanitarian disaster is the displacement of more than 200,000 people driven from their homes by an ethnic Tuareg insurgency in northern Mali. More than 2,000 people have fled to Burkina Faso and Mauritania over the past five days, the UN says.

The refugees are fleeing the sort of heavy fighting experienced when three large towns fell to the rebels over the weekend. Among them was Timbuktu, now the scene of a tense standoff between two rebel factions.

Inhabitants told The Times that Islamist fighters from a group called Ansar Eddine had seized control of the town centre and hoisted their flag over government offices. A much larger, secular group has them surrounded and is negotiating for control of the town.

In Kidal, the northernmost of the three towns captured by the rebels over the weekend, Oussman ag Isa said that the town was almost deserted and that food was running out.

Unesco has warned that Timbuktu’s ancient treasures could be damaged in a confrontation. As well as “outstanding architectural wonders” such as the three great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankoré and Sidi Yahia, there are more than 700,000 manuscripts in 60 private libraries across Timbuktu.

In the first worrying signs that al-Qaeda’s regional franchise is seeking to exploit the instability, sources reported that three senior members, including the group’s leader, an Algerian called Mokhtar Belmokhtar, made an appearance in Timbuktu yesterday. The others were named as Abou Zeid and Yahya Abou al-Hammam.

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