By Mike Pflanz, West Africa Correspondent
Published: 10:42PM GMT 23 Nov 2009
The new travel advisory raised the threat in and around Mali‘s oft-quoted oasis town to “high” Photo: REUTERS
The new travel advisory raised the threat in and around Mali’s oft-quoted oasis town to “high” after a surge in kidnappings of Westerners by al-Qa’eda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), a growing terror cell inspired by Osama bin Laden which is widening its reach across the unpoliced Sahara desert.
Now the town on the southern fringe of the Sahara desert – long a metaphor for alluring and remote destinations – is likely to be less appealing for even the most intrepid holidaymakers.
Two world famous music festivals, Sahara Nights and the Festival in the Desert, are also in the affected areas.
“There is a high threat from terrorism,” the new travel advice reads. “Terrorists have been involved in kidnaps in the region and we believe that further kidnap attacks are likely.”
A British tourist, Edwin Dyer, was murdered in Mali in June after he and his party were kidnapped in January on the Mali-Niger border. Last week in Niger, gunmen tried to seize a group of US embassy employees.
Aqim is understood to be using ransom money to attract new recruits and buy weapons, in order to extend its terror reach south from its traditional targets in Algeria.
“We know al-Qaeda is looking to spread its activities in areas it believes state security is inadequate and weak, and the population is poor,” said Ivan Lewis, the Foreign Office minister, during a visit to the region on Monday.
As many as 10,000 people travel to Timbuktu each year, according to the local tourist office, drawn by its history as a trade hub and centre for Islamic scholarship which stretches back to the 11th century.
Authorities insist that the city is safe, but admit that already the numbers of visitors has halved in 2009 compared to the year before.
“With the recent problems linked to security in the region, we are crossing our fingers,” said Mahamane Dady, a local official from the Malian tourism office.
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