By Jemal Oumar
Islamists in northern Mali are growing increasingly anxious about their precious hold on the region amid protests by residents and a possible West African military intervention.
In the latest incident to highlight the fear of al-Qaeda linked radicals, militants in Timbuktu opened fire on surveillance aircraft spotted over the city last week.
“I have seen the plane roaming several times in the sky of Timbuktu, it roamed the sky several times, I also heard the sound of heavy weapons shooting at the planes, which was confirmed later on by Ansar al-Din and al-Qaeda groups that confirmed aiming at the plane without hitting it,” Timbuktu Mayor Halle Ousmane told Magharebia by phone Tuesday (June 19th).
“This is not the first time we hear and see reconnaissance planes hovering over Timbuktu, although up until now, they were never targeted,” the mayor added. “People in Timbuktu have become used to this.”
Oumar Ould Hammaha, one of the military chiefs of the Ansar al-Din and a reputed deputy of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka Laaouar), confirmed the June 14th event in a statement to AFP.
“Yes, we opened fire, and if it pleases God, we shall soon shoot down the enemy planes that fly over Timbuktu. France, the UN, can send all the means in the world. With the grace of God, we will defeat the enemy,” the Islamist military leader was quoted as saying.
Attay Ag Mohamed, a media official with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), told Magharebia that it was not the first time reconnaissance planes were seen over Timbuktu. “The new thing, though, is the use of heavy weapons by AQIM elements who raise Ansar al-Din flags to hide under its cover. However, they didn’t hit that plane,” he said.
“This incident has caused severe panic for Timbuktu residents because it shows that armed confrontations will take place, and that innocent people will be the victims,” he added. “This, of course, causes more hatred for the terrorist groups in the city and the region in general.”
“The residents of Timbuktu are talking today about their fears of armed confrontations between Western forces and terrorist elements in town,” he concluded. “They fear even more from being used as human shields.”
Meanwhile, Ibrahim Ag Shita, a resident of Timbuktu, wondered, “Until when shall we live on the edge?”
“Such cases will definitely be repeated in next days, especially as the region is about to witness armed confrontations between the terrorist groups and the world,” he said.
“In fact, most residents in Timbuktu have contradictory feelings,” he concluded. “While they want to see an armed confrontation between the terrorists and international forces so that the terrorists may be eliminated and destroyed once and for all, they fear that they will be taken as human shields by the terrorist groups that move inside town and enter every house without reservations.”