Armed protesters from Mali’s Arab community fired shots in the air, burned tyres and torched vehicles in Timbuktu bringing the desert city to a standstill days before an election seen as a test of stability across the country, officials said.
The Arab youths, mostly small traders were protesting worsening insecurity and alleged ill treatment by security forces in northern Mali, plagued by Islamist violence, Tuareg separatists and ethnic tensions since armed groups took over parts of the region in 2012.
Demonstrators filled the streets, forcing shops and banks to shut, witnesses said, though there were no reports of casualties.
Malians vote on Sunday in a presidential election in which President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will seek a second term amid rising discontent over the government’s record on security.
“It’s deplorable,” Timbuktu mayor Abacrine Cisse told Reuters. “There are still gunmen in the town disturbing the peace. I’ve been in touch with all community leaders to resolve this incident,” he said.
Northern Mali has been convulsed by violence at the hands of armed groups claiming to represent its various quarrelling communities for years. Earlier this year Timbuktu seemed to quieten, but violence and lawlessness is on the rise again.
Residents said the trigger for the latest unrest was robbery of a pharmacy owned by a black Bambara trader on Tuesday.
Malian troops responded by arresting some armed Arab youths, sparking a gun battle in which no one was hurt. The soldiers arrested four youths, a local journalist on the scene said.
Timbuktu’s light-skinned Arab and Tuareg communities have long complained of being persecuted by Malian soldiers, made up mostly of black ethnic groups from the south and centre.
Violence in north and central Mali is so widespread some Malians doubt the election will be held in some parts, though the West African country has a history of relatively peaceful elections.