Sunday, April 15, 2012

Swiss woman taken by gunmen in Mali's Timbuktu

Timbuktu, formerly also spelled Timbuctoo and Timbuktoo, is a town in the West African nation of Mali situated 15 km (9.3 mi) north of the River Niger on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The town is the capital of the Timbuktu Region, one of the eight administrative regions of Mali. It had a population of 54,453 in the 2009 census.

Starting out as a seasonal settlement, Timbuktu became a permanent settlement early in the 12th century. After a shift in trading routes, Timbuktu flourished from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves, and it became part of the Mali Empire early in the 13th century. In the first half of the 15th century the Tuareg tribes took control of the city for a short period until the expanding Songhay Empire absorbed the city in 1468. A Moroccan army defeated the Songhay in 1591, and made Timbuktu, rather than Gao, their stronghold. The invaders established a new ruling class, the arma, who after 1612 became independent of Morocco. However, the golden age of the city was over and it entered a long period of decline. Different tribes governed until the French took over in 1893, a situation that lasted until it became part of the current Republic of Mali in 1960. Presently Timbuktu is impoverished and suffers from desertification. Several initiatives are being undertaken to revive the historic manuscripts still kept in the city. Meanwhile, tourism forms an important source of income.

In its Golden Age, the town's numerous Islamic scholars and extensive trading network made possible an important book trade: together with the campuses of the Sankore madrassah, an Islamic university, this established Timbuktu as a scholarly centre in Africa. Several notable historic writers, such as Shabeni and Leo Africanus, have described Timbuktu. These stories fuelled speculation in Europe, where the city's reputation shifted from being extremely rich to being mysterious. This reputation overshadows the town itself in modern times, to the point where it is best known in Western culture as an expression for a distant or outlandish place.

On 1 April 2012, one day after the capture of Gao, Timbuktu was captured from the Malian military by the Tuareg rebels of the MNLA and Ansar Dine. Five days later, the MNLA declared the region independent of Mali as the nation of Azawad.

Note that in Islamic countries, to convert from Islam, or to try to convert people from Islam, is punishable by death. So this woman is probably dead.

From Yahoo News: Swiss woman taken by gunmen in Mali's Timbuktu
BAMAKO (Reuters) - A Swiss woman who had stayed in the northern Malian town of Timbuktu after it was captured by Tuareg and Islamist rebels was taken from her house by unidentified gunmen on Sunday, a witness and several sources in the town said.

Yehia Tandina, one of the town's residents, said the woman, whom she identified only as Beatrice, was seized by armed men in turbans on Sunday afternoon. A neighbor of the Swiss woman who asked not to be named confirmed the incident.

A spokesman for the Swiss foreign ministry in the Swiss capital Berne said the ministry was looking into the report.

A mix of Tuareg separatist and Islamist rebels captured Timbuktu on April 1 in the final leg of their lightning advance southwards through Mali's desert north as government forces retreated in the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the capital.

The woman taken was described by several sources as a missionary who had lived in the town for a number of years and spoke several local languages.

"She is very well known in the town. She would walk around the town trying to convert people (to Christianity)," a resident of the town told Reuters, asking not to be named.

The sources said she was seized in the Abaradjou neighborhood.

A question e-mailed to the Swiss Foreign Ministry about the reported incident was not immediately answered.

Timbuktu, known for centuries as a key trading town in the Sahara and a seat of Islamic learning, had become a top tourist destination in Mali. But insecurity in recent years - including the abduction of several foreigners there by al Qaeda last year - had reduced visitors to a trickle. In the days leading to the capture, most resident Westerners had left the town due to fears of being kidnapped and passed on to al Qaeda cells. Tuareg MNLA rebels smuggled two British citizens and a Frenchman out of the town following the rebel assault. AQIM, al Qaeda's North African wing, which operates in the zone and has links to the Islamist rebels, is already holding 13 Westerners and has earned millions of dollars from ransom payments from previous kidnappings in recent years. The declaration of a Tuareg rebel homeland in northern Mali has raised fears among Western security experts that the remote, inhospitable zone could become a secure haven for al Qaeda and a "rogue state" in West Africa.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday it was essential to prevent a "terrorist or Islamic state" emerging in northern Mali.

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