Timbuktu in 2008. Photo published on Twitter by Bert Henning.
The Islamist rebels who seized control of the Malian city of Timbuktu have announced their intention to enforce sharia law and restore order after a recent wave of looting. For now, our Observers on the ground report that the new leaders are engaging in peaceful dialogue with locals. However, some worry that they may eventually harden their stance.
Rebels have taken over a string of northern Malian cities in the past week – Kidal, Gao, and now the holy city of Timbuktu. The National Azawad Liberation Movement (MNLA), which is made up of Tuareg separatists, was the first group of rebels to enter Timbuktu Friday after the national army deserted the area [Some witnesses say members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), fought alongside the rebels, but the MNLA denies this]. A few hours later, they were forced to retreat to Timbuktu’s airport, and were ultimately chased away by another rebel group, Ansar Dine, led by Tuareg chief Ag Ghali. Ghali has said he wants to impose sharia law across the entire country. His group of rebels were one of the main forces behind the capture of the town of Aguelhoc in January and Kidal last week.
According to Agence France Presse, after arriving in the city, Ghali, whom local sources say was accompanied by several AQMI leaders, asked to meet with Timbuktu’s religious authorities; he reportedly told them that in addition to imposing sharia law in the city, he wanted to bring an end to recent looting and violence. But according to AFP, sermons were organised throughout the city praising the benefits of Islam and sharia law.
Ninety percent of Mali’s population is Muslim. The remaining ten percent is divided between Catholics, Protestants and animists.

"I have the feeling they don’t want to generate violence in a holy city they respect"

Idriss (not his real name) is a member of the Arab militia of Timbuktu, a force that had been helping the national army guard the city before it was taken over by rebels. He left the city yesterday for the town of Mopti, 500 kilometres to the south, but intends to return to Timbuktu shortly.
When I left the city yesterday, the situation seemed fairly peaceful. Members of the rebel groups were talking to locals, sometimes sharing a cup of tea.
Of course, some of the city’s residents panicked at the sight of these fundamentalists. Many bought arms after the military camp was looted on Sunday, and are preparing to defend themselves if need be. Most people would prefer for a government to be formed rapidly in [the Malian capital] Bamako, so that there can be peaceful talks between national emissaries and representatives of the rebels who took control of the city. [Mali’s government was overthrown by a coup on March 21. The coup’s leaders, however, called for transition talks Wednesday].
The Islamists have announced that they want to restore order and pacify the city. I have the feeling they don’t want to generate violence in a holy city they respect. I have already come across members of AQMI in the city, well before the rebel attack. They were approaching people in a market to tell them about their morals and advise them to follow God’s will and not to work with white people, because they are infidels.
The problem is that Islamists refuse the modern lifestyle most people lead in Timbuktu. But I’m convinced that our city will suffer less than others under sharia law, since our residents are mainly Muslim and already very pious. However I don’t see sharia law going down well in other cities, where multiple cultures have lived side by side for many years. Many people want to preserve this diversity.

"They are trying to reassure the population … But I’m not reassured"

Philippe (not his real name) is one of the few Christians living in Timbuktu. He teaches French at a high school and hopes to leave the city soon.
Asnar Dine militiamen are patrolling the city, but we still see the occasional MNLA member. The situation between the two groups seems tense. Monday night we heard gunshots, but it was unclear exactly who was doing the firing.
The MNLA never really controlled the city. When they arrived, no one tried to stop them, so they were able to drive around in their four-wheelers, until Asnar Dine took over. But after talks between Islamists and religious leaders, life went somewhat back to normal.
For the time being, Islamists are searching for looting militiamen and forcing them to return stolen goods to residents. [According to AFP, the rebels paraded shackled robbers down the street, then vowed to cut off the hands of future thieves, in accordance with sharia law]. I heard that they covered the bills of injured people at the city hospital [according to Radio France International, they secured the hospital and asked female personnel to wear headscarves]. Their strategy is obviously driven by their religious beliefs, but they are also trying to reassure the population.
However, being a Christian, I’m not really reassured. I have relatives living in Gao who told me that rebels there ravaged one of the churches [the offices of the Christian charity Caritas were also destroyed]. They were forced to flee to Niger for safety, and have strongly recommended that I leave for the capital, Bamako. But very few cars and buses are leaving the city, and they are packed.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.