Mali commences Festival in the Desert amid fears of heightened insecurity

By Kemo Cham- Malian authorities are resolved to contain the surging influence of Al-Qaeda as the country commences a major festival in the desert.

The 11th edition of a festival that celebrates the culture of the Tuareg people in the north of the country began on Thursday at the backdrop of a bomb attack in the capital Bamako, raising fears over heightened insecurity in the Al-Qaeda infested region.

A man variously described as of North Africa origin earlier on Wednesday night set an explosion on the French embassy in Bamako, wounding at least two people (some accounts say three).

The assailant reportedly threw the explosive device, a gas cylinder he had set alight, in front of the gate of the embassy, resulting into minor damages on the property. One of the wounded victims, according to the French authorities, is a staffer, the remaining being bystanders.

A statement by Mali’s security and civil protection ministry, broadcast on national television, confirmed that the attacker was also in possession of a firearm. But there have emerged conflicting accounts as to whether he used it or not. While the ministry said he had not used the gun by the time he was being arrested by the security forces from the anti-crime brigade, independent sources cited in wire reports indicated otherwise.

Hammadoun Billal Traore, a police officer in Bamako, told AP that the attacker fired off several shots with a pistol before being detained by security forces after the blast. Private security guards stationed at the embassy premises confirmed this. They said the attacker fired shots toward the embassy, resulting in the injury of one person.

But a report by one of Mali’s leading dailies, L’essor, said the nature of the explosions misled many in the area to believe that shots were fired by the gunman. “The individual, who was also armed with a pistol, was unable to use his weapon before he was contained by security forces,” the paper quoted a statement signed by Inspector General Anatole Sangare of Mali’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

There were no immediate reasons given for the attack, which has generated much excitement within the Malian population, although the attacker has claimed membership of the Al-Qaeda terror group, and said he is Tunisian. Senior police officer, Abdoulaye Sow, who is in charge of the station where the detainee was been questioned after the attack, told AP that the suspect had no identification documents with him and therefore his claims could not be verified.

Wednesday’s episode reportedly caused a temporary traffic jam around the location of the embassy, where many curious onlookers had gathered.

Al-Qaeda infested region

All attention are presently in the North of the country, where the authorities are hoping to demonstrate that the threat from al-Qaeda in the region has been contained.

“We will be at the festival with a few thousand people, including many tourists, to show that security issues are contained in northern Mali,” Tourism Minister Ndiaye Bah was quoted by AFP. The tourists, he said, are expected to come from everywhere, even Australia.

The Festival in the historic settlement of Tombouctou will take the form of musical entertainment and camel races. The area is prone to terrorist attacks, with the latest incident being last September when seven people – five French, a Togolese and a Madagascan – were abducted in neighboring Niger and taken into the region. An incident like that, purportedly carried out by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an affiliate organization of the global Al-Qaeda group, is a disturbing reminder for the hundreds of Western tourists who are expected to grace the Tombouctou festival.

Unofficial reports also said Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure is likely to make an appearance in the festival.