Can Timbuktu stay pacified after Islamist rebels are run out?

With gun caches still to round up and ethnic rivalries to negotiate as thousands of residents return, can Timbuktu avoid spasms of 'vengeance'?

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
French soldiers patrol outside Djingareiber mosque after Friday prayers in the center of Timbuktu, Mali, Friday.

Captain Yann of the French army’s 6th  Marine engineer battalion got into his jeep early in the morning, drove to the Djingareiber Mosque inside this city and, with a team of soldiers and other army personnel, started digging for bombs.

“We’d had information that men had been seen doing digging work around the mosque that seemed suspect,” he said a few hours later at Timbuktu’s airport, where French troops are based. The strange digging apparently would have occurred while Islamist militants still held the city.

Capt. Yann isn’t allowed to give his last name or say whether this morning’s search uncovered anything. But he can disclose that some 200 pounds of hidden explosives have been found in Timbuktu since French and Malian troops rolled in on Monday.

Clearing mines is just one of many task involved in stabilizing north Mali as Islamist militants flee from cities into the desert. Those militants could make a comeback, while the fractured society they leave behind could splinter into reprisals amid a detritus of leftover weapons.

While Timbuktu is largely calm, there have been a few signs of tension. According to Colonel Mamary Camara, deputy commander of Malian troops in Timbuktu, his men have intervened in recent days to stop locals from looting the shops of alleged Islamist sympathizers. In one instance, munitions were found, he said.

“Saying there will be ethnic war would be going too far,” says Col. Mamadou Mangara, Timbuktu’s regional governor, who was visiting the city today to assess its needs. “But there will be desire for vengeance.” Col. Mangara is a central government appointee.

Timbuktu stands near a bend in the Niger River where scrubby woodland meets the Sahara desert: a low city of sandy streets and mud-brick houses, with the pyramidal form of the Djingareiber Mosque rising in the center. Timbuktu reached its height in the 16th  century as a crossroads of commerce, culture, and language.

That entrepôt heritage is evident today is Timbuktu’s diversity. There are Arabs who share their dialect with the populations of Mauritania and Western Sahara; the ethnic Tuareg are related to North Africa’s Berbers; and adding to the mix are sub-Saharan peoples such as the Songhay, Peul, and Bambara.

While Tuareg rebellions in recent decades have been cause for tension in northern Mali, Timbuktu has endured. Then, last year, Islamist militants blazed into the picture on the heels of a fresh Tuareg revolt. While preaching a purportedly universalist and ultra-orthodox creed, they may have sown seeds of division among Timbuktu’s ethnic communities by seeming to associate with or favor some groups over others.

“Frankly, many who took up arms against Mali were light-skinned Tuareg and Arabs, although other ethnic groups were involved, especially in Ansar al-Dine and the MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa),” says Mangara, citing two of three groups that overran northern Mali last year.

The particular ethnic mix among rebels may be owing in part to circumstance. Ansar al-Dine, one of two militant groups that ran Timbuktu, began as a mainly Tuareg outfit. The other, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has its roots in largely Arabic-speaking Algeria

Still, “Only a few Arabs went with the Islamists,” says Nden Ould Dahama, an Arab trader in Timbuktu’s Abaradjou district, a heavily Arab neighborhood. “And of those, many went because they were paid, or because they just weren’t thinking.”

Today Mr. Ould Dahama is among a handful of Arabs who remain in Timbuktu, where he sells food brought north from central Mali, and salt brought south from Saharan mines. Most other Arabs left last year as crisis set in, he says; some went abroad, and some simply melted into the desert.

They are among thousands of displaced who have fled Timbuktu. It’s unclear for now when these residents might return, and what kind of city might await them. Mangara, the governor, says authorities are working to make it a stable, secure one. But it may take a year before Mangara himself is back on a permanent basis, he says.

For now, the most urgent challenge is ensuring security. Some 40 gendarmes arrived today to help keep order. Nothing so far indicates that militants - who fled north last weekend - remain in Timbuktu, says Col. Paul Geze, who has overseen the operation by French and Malian forces to take Timbuktu.

“But that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone hidden within his house, who will decide to carry out his personal jihad,” he says.

With that in mind, Malian troops are conducting a house-to-house search of the the city. So far, they’ve found caches of weapons including assault rifles, RPG’s, and light machine-guns, as well as mines and homemade bombs, according to Col. Camara.

That’s where Capt. Yann and his team come in. His unit has de-mining specialists, soldiers to cordon off roads, and medical officers, and work at the request of Malian authorities, he says. For today’s visit to the Djingareiber Mosque, a Catholic chaplain came along to liaise with the mosque’s imam.

The team has been busy since arriving in Timbuktu four days ago. Capt. Yann’s jeep is crammed with radio equipment, rations, and various other gear. he calls it, “My house.”  Their first task was clearing the airport, where the runway was littered with bits of rocket and the control tower booby-trapped with a bomb.

Often they must block streets or cordon off areas. Sometimes locals understand, and sometimes they don’t, Capt. Yann says. “But all these weapons -- especially if they start circulating -- are a danger to everyone.”

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