Hundreds of Malians looted Arab-owned shops on Tuesday in Mali’s fabled Timbuktu, newly freed from Islamists, as global donors pledged over US$455 million for a French-led drive to rout the radicals from the north.
Life in the ancient desert city freed from Islamist control on Monday started returning to normal as soldiers patrolled its dusty streets, but soon large crowds began pillaging.
They plundered stores they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians who they accuse of supporting the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists during their 10-month rule over the ancient centre of Islamic learning.
The looters took everything from arms and military communications equipment to televisions, food and furniture, emptying shops in minutes.
In the suburb of Abaradjou, a man living in a former bank converted by the Islamists into a “committee of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice”, was dragged out by a hysterical crowd who then pillaged the building, taking even office chairs.
The bearded middle-aged man was arrested by Malian troops. “He is an Islamist”, one soldier said, as other troops turned their weapons towards the crowd to prevent them from lynching the man.
The mob yelled: “He is not from here, he is a terrorist!”
Malian soldiers put an end to the looting in the middle of the morning.
“We will not let people pillage. But it is true that weapons were found in some shops,” an officer said on condition of anonymity.
International donors pledge $455 million for Mali
African leaders and international officials meanwhile pledged over US$455 million at a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.
“I am glad to report that the overall amount that was pledged here reached the amount of US$455.53 million,” African Union peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said, after the conference in the AU headquarters in Ethiopia.
A woeful lack of cash and logistical resources has hampered deployment of nearly 6,000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) which is expected to take over the offensive from the French army.
So far, just 2,000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger, many of them from Chad whose soldier contribution is independent from the AFISMA force. The bulk of fighting has been borne by some 2,900 French troops.
Lamamra said on Monday the African force will cost US$460 million, with the AU promising to contribute an “unprecedented” US$50 million for the mission and Mali’s army.
The International Monetary Fund has agreed to provide an US$18.4 million emergency loan to Mali. Japan said it would give an extra US$120 million to help stabilise the Sahel region, days after 10 Japanese nationals were killed in the Algerian hostage siege.
The far northern town of Kidal is the biggest goal remaining for the troops, and many of the Islamists who fled their strongholds before the soldiers arrived are believed to have melted away into the hills surrounding the town, 1,500 kilometres northeast of the capital Bamako.
Amid the euphoria over the French-led troops’ victory in Timbuktu, shock spread over reports the fleeing Islamists had torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages.
Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, speaking from the capital Bamako, confirmed accounts of the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research.
“It’s a real cultural crime,” he said.
Set up in 1973, the centre housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali’s culture ministry. However experts believe many of the documents may have been smuggled out and hidden when the crisis began.
Radical Islamists seized Timbuktu 10 months ago as they took control of Mali’s desert north in the chaos that followed a military coup last March.
They forced women in Timbuktu to wear veils, and those judged to have violated their strict version of Islamic law were whipped and stoned. The militants also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.