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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Visit Ancient, Exotic Mali? Safety Revisited


Amanar restaurant, smack in the center of Timbuktu

Almost 3 years ago to the week, I posted a story I wrote from Mali, How Safe Is Mali For American Tourists? At the time, I concluded that it was very safe and I even made light of the State Department prohibition on Peace Corp volunteers traveling to Timbuktu or anywhere north of there-- not that really is anything other than the vast wastes of the Sahara Desert north of there anyway. But Timbuktu is one of the best destinations in Mali and a major reason to travel to that country. Turns out, though, the State Department knew what they were talking about. Four tourists were kidnapped from a central Timbuktu restaurant, Amanar, in broad daylight and one was executed when he refused to get into the kidnappers' truck in front of the restaurant. The dead man was German and the three now missing are from Sweden, Holland and South Africa. The government of Mali ordered a plane to evacuate foreigners back to Bamako, the capital.
Until a few years ago, Timbuktu was one of the most visited destinations in Africa, but it is now one of the many former tourist hotspots in Mali that have been deemed too dangerous to visit by foreign embassies because of kidnappings by the local chapter of al-Qaida.

Friday's incident comes after two French citizens were grabbed in the middle of the night from their hotel in the Malian town of Hombori on Thursday. French judicial officials have opened a preliminary investigation into their kidnappings.

Neither kidnapping has yet been claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, whose members have kidnapped and ransomed more than 50 Europeans and Canadians since 2003.

If Friday's kidnapping is by AQIM, it will mark the first time they have taken a hostage inside of Timbuktu's city limits. Thursday's kidnapping would be another first-- the first hostage taking south of the Niger River.

In October the State Department issued a new travel alert warning against all travel to the north of the country due to kidnapping threats against Westerners.
The Department of State notes that the U.S. Embassy in Bamako has designated northern regions of Mali as "restricted without prior authorization" for purposes of travel by U.S. government employees, contractors, grantees, and their dependents.  Prior to traveling to these areas, U.S. government employees in Mali are required to have the written approval of the U.S. Ambassador to Mali. This designation is based on the presence of AQIM, as well as banditry in the region. This restriction does not apply to travelers who are not associated with the U.S. government, but should be taken into account when planning travel. The restriction is in effect for the regions of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu.

U.S. citizens are specifically reminded that these areas include the Timbuktu site of the popular Festival au Desert music festival, as well as the sites in the regions of Kidal and Gao where many other musical and cultural festivals are traditionally held between December and February. It should be noted that-- in addition to the potential terrorist and criminal threats-- these festivals are located in particularly remote locations, and the Malian authorities would have extreme difficulty rendering assistance should an emergency occur at any of them.

And it isn't only the U.S. State Department warning tourists away from Mali. European countries have been telling their nationals since April that Mali is too dangerous to visit.
• We advise against all travel to the northern provinces of Mali. This includes the provinces of Kidal, Gao, Koulikoro (north of Mourdiah), S├ęgou (north of Niono), Tombouctou (including the city of Tombouctou (Timbuktu)), Mopti, and areas bordering Mauritania east of Nioro in the Kayes province.

• There is a high threat from terrorism in Mali. Terrorists have been involved in kidnaps in the region, on a number of occasions leading to the murder of the hostages.  We believe that further kidnap attempts are likely.

• On 19 April the Embassy of France in Bamako (Mali) alerted its nationals of a “very high risk” of being kidnapped in Mali and Niger particularly between the city of Mopti and the border with Burkina Faso.

• There have been reports of kidnap threats against westerners attending festivals in Mali.  The festival in Anderamboukane, which takes place in an area of Mali that we advise against all travel to was postponed earlier in the year due to security concerns. In 2009 a British national who attended this festival was subsequently kidnapped and murdered. Bookings are already being taken for 2012 festivals in areas of northern Mali to which we currently advise against all travel.

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