Mali boosts security as desert festival kicks off in Qaeda zone

Fewer tourists, but show goes on

Mali has deployed extra troops and military equipment in its north as an annual desert music festival is held in the zone plagued by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, officials said Friday.
Mali's popular annual Desert Festival also kicked off on the outskirts of the fabled ancient city of Timbuktu, where three tourists were kidnapped and one killed in November in a massive blow for the industry.
Speaking in Timbuktu, Security Minister Sadjo Gassama said two paramilitary brigades had been launched in the region.
"Government will unblock all necessary resources to secure people and goods in northern Mali. The state will be more and more present," he told journalists.
"I am reassured that the Desert Festival will be attended by foreign tourists whose security is guaranteed."
Earlier an administrative source, who asked not to be named, said: "The Malian army has deployed men, equipment and over 200 vehicles to the north."
A journalist saw two Mig fighter aircraft already stationed at the airport in Gao, a town in northern Mali, while two smaller planes carried out reconnaissance flights from Timbuktu.
"Today our men are in Tinzawaten (near the Algerian border) to secure our country," a Malian officer based in Gao said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to talk to the press.
The officer said Tuareg rebels recently returned from fighting in Libya who had settled near the town had fled upon the arrival of the armed forces.
An independent source on the ground added that the Malian army had sent military supplies and food for 500 soldiers to the northeast of the country on Thursday.
The deployments have dissuaded a group of Tuareg from confronting the army in the region of Zakac, which is on the road towards Tinzawaten, according to the independent source and a military source.
"Our troops were met with defiance by armed men who were at Zakac. But we have the necessary means, and the group dispersed as we were passing through," said the military source.
The Desert Festival first began in 2001 in Essakane, some 60 kilometres (40 miles) from Timbuktu, however due to security concerns it is being held this year on the outskirts of the city.
About 1,000 people including scores of tourists and Irish singer Bono of U2 fame took part in the opening of the festival on Thursday night in the presence of a discreet security detail.
"I admit there are fewer tourists this year than last year, but the show had to go on," said festival director Manny Ansar.
The event was originally a showcase of Tuareg singing and dancing, poetry, camel races and games but has slowly opened up to the international world featuring artists from Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Sudan, India and Canada.
The security minister said Mali had "made contacts" within AQIM to negotiate the release of the three Timbuktu tourists (Dutch, Swedish and dual South African/British) as well as two French citizens kidnapped in the region a day earlier in November.
On Thursday, AQIM threatened to kill the five Westerners should any rescue operation be attempted.
"We send a warning to France, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden: if they authorise this operation it will mean the death of their nationals and amount to an attempt on their lives," AQIM said in a statement in Arabic.
"According to information we have received, the alliance of crusaders led by France, which supports certain regimes like those of Algeria and Mauritania, is preparing an imminent military operation to free their hostages."
The statement was carried by the ANI news agency in Mauritania which has published several AQIM statements in the past. These have never been disclaimed.
A total of 12 Europeans are being held hostage in the Sahel strip of northwest African nations on the southern edge of the Sahara by AQIM and a new splinter group calling itself the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
This zone is difficult to patrol and monitor and AQIM has carried out many attacks on troops, kidnappings of Westerners and trafficking of various kinds, including drugs.