Tourists evacuated from Timbuktu after Mali kidnappings

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Authorities on Saturday evacuated the last tourists from the ancient city of Timbuktu in northern Mali, a day after three foreigners were kidnapped and another killed, an airport official said.

The 20-odd tourists were flown by government-chartered aircraft to Mopti, south of Timbuktu, and to the capital Bamako.

On Friday, an armed gang snatched a Swede, a Dutchman and a man with dual British-South African nationality from a restaurant on Timbuktu's central square and killed a German with them who tried to resist, officials said.

The latest kidnappings brought to five the number of foreigners taken hostage in Mali in 48 hours, after two French nationals described as a geologist and an engineer were taken from their hotel in Hombori 240 kilometres (150 miles) to the south early Thursday.

French and Malian soldiers on Saturday afternoon put on hold their search for the pair between Hombori and the Burkina Faso border, Malian security sources said.

The order came after information that the kidnappers and their two hostages were making their way north, to an area near the border with Algeria.

Mali's government described the spate of kidnappings as "an attack on the country's security and stability," which "reaffirms (our) determination and unfailing commitment to any action needed to guarantee peace, security and stability."

Although there has been no immediate claim of responsibility, the incidents are the latest in a series of abductions of foreigners believed to be the work of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

AQIM has bases in the northern Mali desert from which it organises raids and kidnappings and traffics weapons and drugs.

It also operates in Niger, Mauritania and Algeria.

Friday's incident brought the total number of foreigners held in the vast Sahel region to nine and dealt another massive blow to Mali's struggling economy.

Tourism in Timbuktu, an oasis known as "The Pearl of the Desert" and a World Heritage site renowned for its ancient Islamic architecture, was already suffering as foreign governments warned their citizens not to visit the region.

The two French captives, named in documents seen by AFP as Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic, had arrived in Hombori on Tuesday night, apparently on a mission to take soil samples for the company Mande Construction Immobiliere, which plans to build a cement factory in the region.

Police said five people had been arrested, including the Frenchmen's guide, named as Ibrahim Ould Bah.

Acquaintances told AFP that Verdon had links to French mercenary Bob Denard, while Lazarevic was was an ex-military man who got involved in private security.

The kidnappings were the first in this region south of the vast Malian desert and close to Dogon territory, which is popular with tourists because of the famed masks, architecture and dances of the Dogon people.

French authorities had previously classified northern Mali as a "red zone", a recommendation that travel there be avoided. On Saturday, the French foreign ministry enlarged the area to include Hombori.

The capital Bamako and the rest of the country is designated an "orange zone", meaning travel there is not recommended unless absolutely necessary.

The Netherlands also issued a travel warning Saturday for its citizens to avoid northern Mali.

AQIM is holding four French nationals abducted in Niger in September 2010.

The four were among seven people kidnapped at Arlit, the main uranium mining town in Niger. They included an executive of the French nuclear giant Areva and his wife, both French, with five employees of an Areva sub-contractor, identified as three French men, a Togolese and a Madagascan.

The French woman and the two African men were freed on February 24, but the others are still being held.

© 2011 AFP

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