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Security vacuum in the Sahel leaves Timbuktu blockaded by Islamist militants

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Residents of Timbuktu face food shortages. Al-Qaida and Islamic State militants blockaded that city in Mali. Humanitarian aid is no longer arriving. And travel in or out of the city is almost impossible. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu called a resident there.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Thirty-five-year-old Mahmoud Gassamba says his city is under siege.

MAHMOUD GASSAMBA: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: He says the prices of food and produce have doubled, and stocks that were brought south from Algeria to markets across his city have emptied. Timbuktu has an almost mythical status, seen as one of the cradles of Islamic scholarship. It had been experiencing a period of relative peace in recent years, after insurgents took over the city in 2012. But now it's on the front line of the fighting again.

GASSAMBA: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: Gassamba says people feel afraid to leave their homes and that there's no help. In mid-August, JNIM, an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group, made a declaration of war on Timbuktu. Now thousands of people on the edge of the Sahara have been shut off from the outside world with no routes in and out by road, air or along the Niger River.

ULF LAESSING: There is a direct consequence between the U.N. withdrawal and what's happening in Timbuktu and the rest of the north.

AKINWOTU: Ulf Laessing is based in the Malian capital, Bamako, and is Sahel program director for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. He says last year, the military ordered the U.N. peacekeeping force of about 13,000 to leave, and now insecurity is rising in northern Mali.

LAESSING: It was all part of a nationalist power play. You know, I mean, the government is under pressure. They have to show something.

AKINWOTU: Mali's new military leaders took power two years ago in the second of two coups within a year, riding a wave of dismay at insecurity and anger at French influence in its former colonies. It cut ties with France and established closer ties with Russia. The Wagner mercenary group now operates alongside the Malian army and has left a trail of human rights abuses in its wake.

GASSAMBA: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: The government has claimed that the situation in Timbuktu is under control, but residents say otherwise. And Mahmoud Gassamba says the reality is that people in his city live in fear of what is to come.

Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.