Swiss woman taken by gunmen in Mali's Timbuktu

BAMAKO Sun Apr 15, 2012 5:39pm EDT

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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.

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.

(Reporting by David Lewis and Adama Diarra; Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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