Looting in Timbuktu as donors pledge millions for Mali war

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AFP) - Hundreds of Malians looted shops Tuesday in Timbuktu, newly freed from Islamists, as global donors pledged over US$455 million (S$561 million) for a French-led drive to expel the extremists from the north.

Life had started returning to normal after French and Malian troops on Monday entered the fabled desert city which had been subjected for months to brutal Islamic law, but soon a large angry crowd set to pillaging.

They plundered stores they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians whom they accuse of supporting the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists during their 10-month rule over the ancient centre of Islamic learning.

The looters took everything from arms and military communications equipment to televisions, food and furniture, emptying shops in minutes.

In the suburb of Abaradjou, a man living in a former bank converted by the Islamists into a "committee of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice" was dragged out by a hysterical crowd who then pillaged the building, taking even office chairs.

The bearded middle-aged man was arrested by Malian troops. "He is an Islamist," one soldier said, as other troops turned their weapons towards the crowd to prevent them from lynching the man.

The mob yelled: "He is not from here, he is a terrorist!" Malian soldiers put an end to the looting by mid-morning.

"We will not let people pillage. But it is true that weapons were found in some shops," an officer said on condition of anonymity.

African leaders and international officials meanwhile pledged over $455 million (340 million euros) at a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for military operations in Mali and humanitarian aid.

A woeful lack of cash and logistical resources has hampered deployment of nearly 6,000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) which is expected to take over the offensive from the French army.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced additional aid of 47 million euros ($63 million) for African forces and Malian troops in Addis Ababa in the form of logistical support and materiel.

He said the hefty sum was "warranted given the amplitude of the danger and the need for France to stand by Mali and Africa." The French swept to Mali's aid on January 11 as the Islamists advanced south towards the capital Bamako, amid rising fears the occupied northern zone could become a haven for terrorists.

So far, just 2,000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger, many of them from Chad whose contingent is independent from the AFISMA force. The bulk of fighting has been borne by some 2,900 French troops.

"Till date, we have 1,428 men on the ground without counting the Chadians," said AFISMA spokesman Colonel Yao Adjoumani of Ivory Coast, adding that they included soldiers from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

Britain, which has already provided transport planes to support the French mission, offered to contribute up to 40 personnel for a European Union training mission in Mali, and up to 200 for a separate training force in nearby English-speaking west African nations.

Poland said meanwhile it would contribute 20 experts to an EU mission to train Malian soldiers.

After claiming back control of territory along the curve of the Niger River, the far northern town of Kidal is the biggest goal remaining for the troops.

Amid the euphoria over the French-led troops' victory in Timbuktu, shock spread over reports that the fleeing Islamists had torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts dating back to the Middle Ages.

Set up in 1973, the centre housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali's culture ministry. However experts believe many of the documents may have been smuggled out and hidden when the crisis began.

Radical Islamists seized Timbuktu 10 months ago as they took control of Mali's desert north in the chaos that followed a military coup last March.

They forced women in Timbuktu to wear veils, and those judged to have violated their strict version of Islamic law were whipped and stoned. The militants also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.

Political instability following the coup has plagued Bamako and raised fears for the nation's ability to deal with the crisis in the north.

On Tuesday Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore said he hoped to hold "transparent and credible" elections by July 31.

The Malian parliament also unanimously voted a "roadmap" proposed by the government on the way forward, including the start of "discussions with armed groups which do not threaten either the integrity or the secular nature" of the state.