TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) - Western tourists danced among the sand dunes of Mali on Saturday as the West African country sought to put its desert festival back on the world music map despite the threat from al Qaeda allies.
Once described by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant as “one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time”, the 11-year-old event won international acclaim before a spate of hostage-takings across the region decimated visitor numbers.
Military aircraft criss-crossed the sky above the venue by the ancient Saharan trading city of Timbuktu as part of a tight security presence aimed at showing that Mali is pulling its weight in efforts across the region to combat al Qaeda.
“I see there are plenty of police and I told myself it’s safe. The festival is great, the atmosphere is wonderful even if they tell me there are many fewer tourists than last year,” said Agnieszka Kaszycki, a 40-year-old engineer from Poland.
Roughly 300 paying tourists attended, about half the number in 2011 and well down on the thousand-plus of past years. Around three thousand non-paying Malians also turned up for the three-day event, including nomadic Tuaregs.
“All the population suffers from the threat, we have to support them,” Paul Higgins, a 55-year-old from Canada, said of the impact that kidnappings had on the fragile local economy of northern Mali, once boosted by tourist revenues.
Barely months after Mali and neighbouring Niger ended years of uprisings in 2009, the Sahel faced a new security threat as local bandits teamed up with al Qaeda’s Saharan wing, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to ply a lucrative trade in ransoms of Western hostages.
Aside from the impact on tourism, the kidnappings have made it harder for international aid workers to operate in the semi-arid Sahel region which faces regular food crises and has some of the worst health statistics in the world.
Bono, of rock group U2, put in an appearance on the opening night on Thursday in what organisers said was a show of support for the event.
AQIM claimed responsibility for kidnapping five Europeans in two incidents in Timbuktu and the northern town of Hombori last November and is thought to be holding four French nationals taken from the Nigerien mining town of Arlit in 2010. Last week it threatened to kill its prisoners if France and its allies attack its bases in Mali.
Malian Security Minister Sadio Gassama denied knowledge of any presence of forces from France or neighbouring Algeria on its soil, adding that “discreet contacts” were underway with the presumed kidnappers to negotiate their release.
“For the (three) hostages taken in Timbuktu, investigations are under way but for now we have not got any exact clues,” Gassama told Reuters in Timbuktu.
This year's headline act was the Tuareg-Berber group Tinariwen, with other acts including Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure. www.festival-au-desert.org/
Additional reporting by Rainer Schwenzfeier in Timbuktu; writing by Mark John; Editing by Ben Harding