Mali unites against the Ansar Dine Islamists in Timbuktu

Bamako, Mali - Tuareg craftsman Almoutadi Ag Risa closed his boutique in Timbuktu about two months ago as Islamist fighters linked to al-Qaeda took control of the ancient town in northern Mali.

He ensured his wife and their 20-year-old son were safe in a nearby village before he made his way south to the capital, Bamako, with some of his goods.

He then found a room in a local cultural centre, where I met him.

"I pray God the trouble won't last long," he said.

He pulled a few pieces out of a small suitcase: Stone or beaded necklaces, earrings and bracelets worked in silver, copper or bronze.

The rest of his stock - Tuareg knives, leather handbags made of camel skin and other handicrafts - is hidden in a locked garage in Timbuktu.

"My family has been doing this artisanal work for generations," he said, looking anxious when I asked him what he would do if the crisis to have hit Mali this year continues - which looks likely.

"I don't know what else I could do if there are no foreigners to buy these pieces any more."

While the interim government is busy battling with the soldiers who overthrew the previous administration in March, the picture in the north grows darker.

What began as a rebellion in January by ethnic Tuareg has been usurped by Islamist militant groups who have taken advantage of the coup and imposed Sharia in most of the key towns in the north.

Music has been banned from local radios, women face being beaten if they are seen with their heads uncovered and people have been whipped in public for various misdemeanours.

Imams unite

On top of that, northern residents suffer days without power, fuel and food shortages.

Aid workers have also reported cases of cholera.

"The entire local economy is gone. Everything has been torn down," said the mayor of Timbuktu, Halle Ousmane Cisse, who is Bamako to collect supplies.

He says he realises that talking to a journalist may expose him, but the situation is "so desperate", he wants to speak out.

"There's no more trade, no more banks. Administrative services are non-existent: Islamists have looted everything. Timbuktu is now a ghost town."

Islamist militants of Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have also destroyed half of the World Heritage tombs and mausoleums in the name of radical Islam.

The loss of these shrines has sparked worldwide outrage but it has also caused great sadness and disapproval among religious leaders in Bamako.

Most Malians practise a popular form of Sufi Islam, often described as an open and intellectual interpretation of the religion - it involves mysticism, chanting and hypnotic prayers.

At a city centre mosque we were welcomed inside as followers sat around a white cloth, gently swaying to the prayers.

Our presence did not seem to bother anyone, which gives an indication of what shapes tolerant Islamic identity in Mali.

"The brutal force they are using is against the basic principles of Islam," says Omar Tanapo, the mosque's imam, who feels the Islamist armed groups' version of Sharia has nothing to do with religion.

"The Prophet instructed that we should visit these tombs regularly."

Hotels shut

Earlier in the day, adherents of a stricter form of Islam had gathered at a mosque funded by Saudi Arabia.

Hard-line Wahhabism has grown in recent years in Mali with young imams returning from studying on the Arab peninsula.

"I wish Mali to become a Sharia state," says Imam Mohamed Toure, who spent five years in Saudi Arabia.

The leader of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghaly, used to sit behind him during prayers at his mosque - although they did not have any personal relationship.

"But Sharia should not be imposed by armed men," Imam Toure insisted.

"It will come by itself according to God's will."

The condemnation of the Islamist factions seems unanimous.

Imam Toure and his followers openly advocate a military intervention to dislodge radical Islamists from the dry and arid north.

After all, it is the country's integrity and its economy that are at stake.

The longer the Islamists are left unchecked, the deeper into crisis Mali's economy - one of the world's poorest - will sink.

All foreign embassies have warned their nationals not to travel to Mali.

It would take at least two years to have the tourism sector up and running again if peace was to return immediately, according to Moussa Diallo, director of the National Office for Tourism.

More than 50 hotels have already shut down across the country, including two of the most prestigious in Bamako - the Grand Hotel and Hotel Nord-Sud - which both belong to the Azalai group.

In total, 3,000 hotel staff have temporarily been laid off in Mali while nearly 1,000 have been sacked.

"These figures will certainly be much higher in three or four months' time," said Mr Diallo.

"This crisis is just a killer."

Mali is now effectively divided and with the Islamist black flag planted in the north, things are likely to get worse for travel agencies, tour guides and commerce in general.

But there is a deeper fear that this crisis could lead to a religious divide driven by political Islam.

What is under threat in Mali is not just a World Heritage site and sacred tombs, but a way of life that has been based on the respect of a secular state for generations.

African and Western leaders know too well that there may be no other solution than military intervention to put an end to a crisis that risks spilling over to the rest of the Sahel region.

"We cannot cook omelettes without breaking eggs," Timbuktu's mayor said.

"We know that we may pay a heavy price when they bombard these rebels, but those of us who will survive will tell the future generations what happened," Mr Cisse said.

"At least they will be free. We cannot bear this oppression."