Mali’s Timbuktu cut off from the world as flights are halted due to Islamist militants blockade
The historic city of Timbuktu in northern Mali is facing a humanitarian crisis as Islamist militants have blocked all roads and rivers leading to it, preventing the delivery of food and aid.
The situation has worsened as Sky Mali, the only commercial airline that operated flights to Timbuktu, has suspended its service due to security concerns.
Timbuktu Under Siege by Al Qaeda Affiliate
Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a former hub of culture and commerce on the edge of the Sahara desert, has been under siege by the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), a coalition of militant groups loyal to al Qaeda, since mid-August.
The militants have set up checkpoints and barricades on the main roads and bridges connecting Timbuktu to the rest of Mali, as well as on the Niger River, which is a vital lifeline for trade and transport. They have also imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law, banning music, alcohol, cigarettes, and women’s clothing that they deem inappropriate.
The militants claim that they are protecting Timbuktu from the Malian government and its foreign allies, who they accuse of corruption, oppression, and interference in their affairs. They also demand the release of their prisoners and the withdrawal of foreign troops from Mali.
Sky Mali Cancels Flights to Timbuktu
Sky Mali, a private airline that was launched in 2019 with the aim of boosting domestic air travel in Mali, announced on Monday that it had cancelled its flights to Timbuktu until further notice due to insecurity.
The airline said that it had received threats from unidentified armed groups who warned them not to fly to Timbuktu or face attacks. The airline said that it had informed the Malian authorities and the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) of the situation and requested their assistance to ensure the safety of its passengers and crew.
Sky Mali was the only commercial airline that offered regular flights to Timbuktu, which has a small airport with a dirt runway. The airline operated two flights per week from Bamako, the capital of Mali, to Timbuktu, with a stopover in Mopti, another northern city. The flight time was about two hours, compared to a journey of several days by road or river.
Timbuktu Faces Humanitarian Crisis
The suspension of flights by Sky Mali has added to the plight of Timbuktu’s residents, who are already suffering from a lack of food, water, fuel, medicine, and other essential goods due to the blockade by the militants.
According to local sources, prices of basic commodities have skyrocketed in Timbuktu’s markets, while stocks are running low. Many people are struggling to afford or access enough food and water for themselves and their animals. Some people have resorted to using donkeys or camels to transport goods from nearby villages or across the river, but they face risks of harassment or robbery by the militants or bandits.
Humanitarian agencies have also been unable to deliver aid to Timbuktu’s population, which is estimated at around 50,000 people. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said that it had not been able to distribute food assistance to Timbuktu since July due to the insecurity and logistical challenges. The WFP said that it was exploring alternative ways to reach Timbuktu’s people, such as using helicopters or air drops.
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