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Timbuktu economy hit hard by Mali crisis

Marc Bastian
A French soldier stands guard in front of the Djingareyber mosque on February 2, 2013 in Timbuktu. Its sandy streets eerily empty, its water, electricity and communications cut, Timbuktu has been freed but faces the daunting task of rebuilding.

Its sandy streets eerily empty, its water, electricity and communications cut, Timbuktu has been freed from its Islamist occupiers but now faces the daunting task of rebuilding an economy in shambles.

The fabled city in northern Mali spent ten months under armed extremists who imposed a brutal form of Islamic law before fleeing in the face of a French-led military intervention that retook Timbuktu Monday.

On their way out, the Al Qaeda-linked rebels sabotaged the city's water and electricity systems, communication networks and the ferry that provides a key link across the Niger river.

"Economically, it's a catastrophe. We're living in extreme poverty. We are only just resuming activity," says Baba Abdou Toure, a restaurant owner in the city that rose to fame in the 14th century as a gold-trading outpost and centre of Muslim learning.

The military campaign against the Islamists has claimed a rapid string of victories since France, the West African country's former colonial ruler, launched its first surprise air strikes on January 11, ousting the rebels from their key strongholds.

But the crisis is not over for Mali's vast desert north, devastated by a year of armed rebellion and the flight of more than 350,000 people from their homes at a time when the Sahel was hit by its worst food shortage in years after a crippling drought.

That exodus has continued as light-skinned residents accused of supporting the Islamists flee reprisal attacks from the Malian army and their neighbours.

Their departure has dealt a further blow to Timbuktu's economy, where Tuaregs -- almost half the city's population -- and Arabs played a key role.

"A lot of people fled because of the rebels. And when we learned the French were coming, all the Tuaregs and Arabs left for the north," fearing reprisals by Mali's black majority, said Toure.

The restaurateur complains food prices have risen sharply since the beginning of the crisis, a complaint echoed by other locals in a city where unemployment is rife.

There is a shortage of meat because herders no longer bring livestock to the city. The price of a kilo of mutton has more than doubled, from 1,200 CFA francs (less than two euros) to 2,600 (four euros). Chicken has doubled in price, and beef has gone up 25 percent.

Stalls in the market are sparse, and the Islamists sabotaged the rusted ferry that brought food and goods from the other side of the large bend in the Niger river where Timbuktu lies.

"The motor is broken and we don't have parts to repair it," says the ferry service's manager, Ibrahim Moussah.

"We pull it with small outboard-motor boats, but it's very slow and expensive -- four times more than normal."

The local hospital is also facing a crisis, and 10 of the district's 21 health centres have lost all their staff, says doctor Ibrahim Maiga.

"We lack everything. Medicine, doctors, nurses," he says.

The Mali economy has been hit hard by the crisis, shrinking an estimated 1.5 percent last year after growing an average 5.7 percent a year between 2000 and 2010, according to the World Bank.

But the effects are particularly devastating in the north.

In Timbuktu, banks are running out of money, after the rebels interrupted their cash flow by closing them -- along with hotels, bars and schools.

The crisis has also stopped the flow of tourists drawn by the city's remote mystique, its mud architecture and sandy streets, and its 700-year-old Djingareyber mosque and other artefacts of its heyday as the centre of Islam in Africa.