Arab gunmen shut down Mali's Timbuktu days before vote

GAO, Mali (Reuters) - Armed protesters from Mali’s Arab community fired shots into the air, burned tyres and torched vehicles in Timbuktu on Wednesday, bringing the desert city to a standstill days before an election seen as a test of stability across the country, officials said.

A soldier walks on the streets after armed protesters fired shots in the air, burned tires and torched vehicles in Timbuktu, Mali July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Maimouna Moro

The Arab youths, mostly petty traders, were protesting against worsening insecurity and alleged ill treatment by security forces in northern Mali, which has been plagued by Islamist violence, Tuareg separatists and ethnic tensions ever since armed groups took over parts of the region in 2012.

Demonstrators filled the streets, forcing shops and banks to shut, witnesses said, though there were no reports of casualties.

Malians will vote on Sunday in a presidential election in which President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will seek a second term amid rising discontent over the government’s record on security.

“It’s deplorable,” Timbuktu’s mayor Abacrine Cisse told Reuters by telephone. “There are still gunmen in the town disturbing the peace. I’ve been in touch with all the community leaders to try to resolve this incident,” he said.

Northern Mali has been convulsed by violence at the hands of armed groups claiming to represent its various quarrelling communities for years. Earlier this year Timbuktu seemed to quieten down, but violence and lawlessness has been on the rise again in the last few months.

Residents said the trigger for the latest unrest was a robbery of a pharmacy owned by a black Bambara trader late on Tuesday.

Malian troops responded by arresting some armed Arab youths, sparking a gun battle in which no one was hurt. The soldiers arrested four youths, a local journalist on the scene said.

Timbuktu’s light-skinned Arab and Tuareg communities have long complained of being persecuted by Malian soldiers, made up mostly of black ethnic groups from the south and center.

Violence in north and central Mali is so widespread that some Malians doubt the election will be able to held in some parts, though the West African country has a long history of relatively peaceful elections.

Reporting by Cheick Amadou Diouara; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Andrew Heavens