Battle of Gao
|Battle of Gao|
|Part of the 2012 Northern Mali conflict|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Bilal Ag Asherif (WIA)||Mokhtar Belmokhtar|
|Casualties and losses|
|4 killed, 10 wounded, 40 captured||9 killed, 7 wounded|
|At least 35 killed overall, including 3 Niger fighters, and 41 wounded|
The Battle of Gao was fought between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), along with its ally Ansar Dine, that took place in Gao between 26–27 June 2012. followed the next day, with more fighting. By 28 June 2012, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, the three biggest cities in the disputed secessionist region of Azawad within what is recognised as Malian territory, were under the control of Ansar Dine and its Islamist allies.
Two days later, parts of the World Heritage Site of Timbuktu had started to be destroyed, amid condemnation by UNESCO, the OIC Mali and France. This was followed by criticism within the region and internationally with ECOWAS suggesting it could send an armed intervention force into the country and the ICC following Mali's lead in terming the acts as "war crimes." While MNLA also criticised the Islamists for holding civilians and destroying the structures, Ansar Dine said that the destruction was due to violation of sharia and in reaction to UNESCO's labeling of the sites of Timbuktu and in Gao as "in danger."
Following previous Tuareg rebellions and the Libyan civil war, in early 2012 the MNLA and Islamist movements captured northern Mali. Tensions then started between the MNLA and Islamist movements over the use of the sharia within the territory. Clashes started to erupt between both sides after a merge attempt failed, despite the signing of an accord to share power. On 25 June, the Islamist Ansar Dine took control of Kidal.
Protests broke out on 26 June in the city of Gao, the majority of whose people are not Tuaregs (as opposed to the MNLA), but rather sub-Saharan groups such as the Songhay and Fula peoples. The protestors opposed the Tuareg rebels and the partition of Mali. Two were killed as a result of the protests, allegedly by MNLA troops. The protesters used both Malian and Islamist flags, and France 24 reported that many locals supported the Islamists as a result of their opposition to the Tuareg nationalists and the secession of Azawad.
Fighting began in the morning of 26 June, with both sides firing heavy weapons. The fighting began over an argument of dis-arming weapons. An MNLA sniper posted on a roof delivered the first shot of many that led to a full-scale battle. Islamists reinforcements began pouring in, surrounding key buildings like the MNLA's main headquarters, a retired government compound. Islamists used rocket propelled grenades to relentlessly bombard MNLA positions defending the building. Four MNLA members were killed in the attack including two colonels; Bouna Ag Tahib, a defector from the Malian army, Wari Ibrahim Ag, and two officers; Teyib Bouna Ag and Ag Guiyou. MNLA Secretary General Bilal ag Acherif was wounded in the attack. He was extricated from the fighting after being shot multiple times, he was later taken to a hospital in Burkina Faso's capital city of Ouagadougou; while ten other fighters were wounded. A MOJWA spokesmen stated that 40 MNLA members were taken prisoner later acknowledged by the MNLA. Casualties for Islamists are 7 killed per MOJWA and 2 killed per AQIM, in their joint attack on the MNLA's H.Q. The building itself was looted after capture and the Azawad flag was replaced with the sharia. All remaining MNLA assets in Gao regrouped at their last stronghold, the airport they used as their armory. MOJWA soon took control of the Gao governor's palace as well as Ag Acherif's residence. The places were taken without MNLA presence. A truce was later reached between representatives from both sides. The cease-fire gave an ultimatum for MNLA forces to evacuate their strongholds at the Gao airport and the city of Timbuktu to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
The MNLA's Azawad Vice President Mahamadou Djeri Maïga acknowledged that they lost control of the city but said that the fight would continue. He asked for international help against Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, who he stated was responsible for the attack. The next day the MNLA were evicted from the city. Two videos seen by the AFP showed the black flag of jihad groups and some members of the group saying "Long Live Mali" and singing the national anthem of Mali, respectively.
Algeria's Ennahar TV reported that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a founding member of AQIM, was probably killed during the battle. A previous death toll of 20 was later revised by doctors who added the number of dead found in the Niger River and the wounded who succumbed to their injuries. Thirty more Algerian fighters were said to have arrived in the city on 29 June to support AQIM and its leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar as the latter seeks to maintain a hold on the town and track MNLA fighters.
Ansar Dine's Chief of Security for Gao, Omar Ould Hamaha, said that the group controls the region and would impose sharia.
Our fighters control the perimeter. We control Timbuktu completely. We control Gao completely. It's Ansar Dine that commands the north of Mali. Now we have every opportunity to apply sharia. Sharia does not require a majority vote. It's not democracy. It's the divine law that was set out by God to be followed by his slaves. One hundred percent of the north of Mali is Muslim, and even if they don't want this, they need to go along with it.
Paris-based MNLA spokesman, Moussa Ag Assarid, said that though the group had lost ground in the big cities "we control 90% of the Azawad."
On 26 June 2012 the Tomb of Askia, which had been listed as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was named by UNESCO as "endangered" at the behest of Mali amid fears of damage to "important ancient manuscripts" from being "looted and smuggled abroad by unscrupulous dealers." Two days later, the same was done for Timbuktu. A statement by the World Heritage Committee also read that it "asked Mali's neighbours to do all in their power to prevent the trafficking in cultural objects from these sites."
ECOWAS then met on 29 June in the Ivorian capital of Yamoussoukro in order to work towards "additional measures to prevent matters in Mali becoming bogged down," according to host President Alassane Ouattara. The meeting was also attended by the mediator for the Malian crisis following the 2012 Malian coup d'etat, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou and Malian interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra. While the group was expected to call for negotiations with movements in the Azawad region, it was also expected to continue with plans to get a 3,300 personnel intervention force together to invade the region.
By 2 July, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, along with its allies, were reported to have mined the periphery of the city. The MNLA spokesman, Mossa Ag Attaher, said that AQIM was "using the population as hostages, as a human shield to protect itself from an MNLA counter-attack...Many people are trying to escape, to take the bus to go to Bamako, but the Islamists are stopping them."
On 3 July, MOJWA released 25 MNLA prisoners who had been captured during the battle to show that "they were for the peace," after being asked to do so by Iyag Ag Ghaly. At the same time, Guinean President Alpha Condé said that an ECOWAS military intervention would be directed against the Islamists and not the MNLA.
Capture of Timbuktu
The next day, Ansar Dine was reported to have taken control of Timbuktu after MNLA fighters followed their deadline to leave town. Residents confirmed the MNLA was no longer present, as the Islamist movements confirmed their control over the entire northern Malian region of Azawad. The evacuation of the city was considered a "strategic withdrawal" by the MNLA.
Destruction of shrines
At the same time, UNESCO responded to appeals from the Malian government in Bamako to declare several sites within the city as "endangered" because it "aims to raise cooperation and support for the sites threatened by the armed conflict in the region." On 30 June 2012, a local journalist said that he was told Ansar Dine would start destroying 13 more Sufi cemeteries and mausolea of saints after having destroyed three, including the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar. They were then said to have destroyed the mausolea of Sidi El Mokhtar, Alfa Moya and five other sites with pick-axes, hoes and Kalashnikovs.
Despite earlier claims that they had stopped taking down the tombs, on 1 July about 30 members of the group were reported to have continued taking down four more sites with hoes and chisels at the cemetery of Djinguereber Mosque, including that of Cheikh el-Kebir, Sidi Elmety, Mahamane Elmety and Sidi Mahmoudou by late afternoon. Ansar Dine's Omar Ould Hamaha said that "the only tribunal we recognise is the divine court of shariah. The destruction is a divine order. It's our prophet who said that each time that someone builds something on top of a grave, it needs to be pulled back to the ground. We need to do this so that future generations don't get confused, and start venerating the saints as if they are God...We are against tourism. They foster debauchery."
On 2 July there were more destructions, most notably at Sidi Yahya's mausoleum, one of the three "great mosques" in the city built in the 1500s during the Islamic Golden Age, according to UNESCO. The militants broke down the door to the shrine, which, according to a local imam, was not supposed to be opened until the end of days. Sanda Ould Bamana then told the BBC that Ansar Dine had done almost 90% of what it sought to in destroying the mausolea in accordance with sharia, which he said does not permit tombs to be taller than 15 centimetres. Local imam, Alpha Abdoulahi, said that the militants wanted to "destroy the mystery" of the gateway and that he was offered "50,000 CFA for repairs but I refused to take the money, saying that what they did is irreparable."
In September 2012, Islamists destroyed the mausoleum of Cheik El-Kebir, located 330 kilometers from Gao. The tomb had been venerated by people of the Kunta tribe. Further destruction occurred with four mausoleums being razed on 23 December and an Ansar Dine official, Abou Dardar, being quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that "not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu."
On January 28, 2013, as French-Malian force of troops captured the airport, the departing forces set fires within the Ahmed Baba Institute, which they had used as a barracks. Initial reports incorrectly stated that the building and all its contents were destroyed. The fire destroyed or damaged some 4,000 manuscripts, but another 10,000 that were kept in underground storage were undamaged. During the occupation, Timbuktu residents ran great risks to smuggle tens of thousands of other priceless manuscripts to relatively safe locations. The manuscripts that the rebels did destroy had all been previously preserved in digital form.
The MNLA's spokesman Hama Ag Mahmoud, speaking from Nouakchott, said of the destructions that "the perpetrators of these heinous acts, their sponsors, and those who support them must be made accountable." On the 12 July, the MNLA released a statement that read "we call on the USA, France and all other countries who want to stand against Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and al Qaeda who are now holding Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal to help us kill them and help the people in those cities." The MNLA and Tuareg refugees claimed, in interviews with the Western media, that Islamists had only previously bested the MNLA, despite their boasts of the MNLA having more fighters, because of superior firepower and the presence of foreign Islamist groups, like AQIM. An MNLA official in Nouakchott later clarified that they would only fight to remove the Islamists if "we are not the ones to fight the terrorists all alone...it is important that the outside powers help us, to even up the balance of power."
Timbuktu Deputy Mayor Sandy Haidara said of the actions that "it looks as if it is a direct reaction to the UNESCO decision." Ansar Dine's spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama then said that the group "will today destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception. God is unique. All of this is haram. We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?" [We are acting] in the name of God." UNESCO's Executive Committee Chair Alissandra Cummins said that "this is tragic news for us all. I appeal to all those engaged in the conflict in Timbuktu to exercise their responsibility."
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova called for a stop to the destructions, shortly before the announcement that Ansar Dine had ceased the destructions, according to a local journalist. Haidara's assessment was echoed by the media, which read the action as reacting to UNESCO's decision to put the sites on the endangered list. The chairwoman of UNESCO's 36th session, Yeleonor Mitrofanova, told the World Heritage Committee meeting in Saint Petersburg that she "appealed to all those engaged in the conflict in Timbuktu to exercise their responsibility -- for the sake of future generations, spare the legacy of their past" A source reported to be affiliated to a local imam was quoted as saying that Ansar Dine had "raped Timbuktu today. It is a crime."
United Nations Representative for West Africa Said Djinnit said that the events "confirm the hold that terrorist groups have on Mali’s north, which worsens the humanitarian position of local people." United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman Martin Nesirky quoted Moon as saying: "Such attacks against cultural heritage sites are totally unjustified," while adding that "the secretary-general calls on all parties to exercise their responsibility to preserve the cultural heritage of Mali." The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda warned "those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate." She cited Mali's accession to Article 8 of the Rome Statute that says any "deliberate attacks against undefended civilian buildings which are not military objectives are a war crime." The sixty-seventh session of the United Nations General Assembly also expressed concern about the regions UNESCO sites to the Director General[who?] of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the President[who?] of the African Union Commission and the Chair[who?] of ECOWAS.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference issued a statement that read the sites were "part of the rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not be allowed to be destroyed and put in harm's way by bigoted extremist elements." ECOWAS also issued a statement after a meeting in Ouagadougou that read: "They are asking the International Criminal Court to proceed with necessary investigations to identify those responsible for war crimes and to take the necessary action against them." [sic] It also called on Mali to ask the UN to support a military intervention against the groups in Azawad.
The Malian government called the actions "destructive fury," "war crimes" and threatened action through Malian and international channels. Mali's Foreign Minister Sadio Lamine Sow said from Algiers that Mali would "do everything to recover our territory;" while the Culture and Tourism Minister Diallo Fadima Touré called on the UN on 1 July, to "take concrete steps to stop these crimes against the cultural heritage of my people." Protesters in Bamako rallied against the Islamist takeover on 4 July.
France's Communications Director and Chief Spokesperson at the Central Administration Bernard Valero said: "France condemns the deliberate destruction of the tombs of Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu by an Islamist extremist group which controls this city. We appeal for an end to this violence and this intolerance. The systematic violation of these places of reverence and prayer, which for centuries have been part of the soul of this famed sub-Saharan city, constitutes an intolerable act." The Russia Foreign Ministry condemned the action as "barbarian. Such acts can only arouse indignation." The United States' State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also added that "the United States strongly condemns the destruction of the UNESCO world heritage sites in Timbuktu by Islamic militants. We call on all parties to protect Mali's heritage." Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba said at the General debate of the sixty-seventh session of the United Nations General Assembly that he rejected the attempt to secede, as well as the wanton destructions of the sites. Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra also called for an immediate international intervention to restore Bamako's writ; he was supported by Niger. It was also affirmed at the same forum by Ivory Coast, who had a similar external intervention during the 2010–2011 Ivorian crisis, and former imperial overlord France's Francois Hollande who supported an African intervention.
The head of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town Shamil Jeppie said that the destruction was akin to that of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. "It's a real loss for people in the town, in the region and on the continent. Timbuktu was a center of Islamic learning, a very significant center — there is lots of internal and external evidence of this. But Ansar Dine is ignorant of this. For them, there is only one book and it's the Quran. All this other (Islamic) learning is inconsequential to them." The Chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation Michael Covitt, said from New York that the action led to "generations and generations of culture being destroyed." However, early estimates of the extent of the destruction were overstated. Timbuktu residents successfully saved more than 300,000 manuscripts by hiding or smuggling them out of Timbuktu. No more than 4,000 documents were lost or damaged when rebels set fires within the Ahmed Baba Institute, and all of them belonged to a set that had been copied by digitization. However, many of the preserved manuscripts were damaged in the process of rescuing and hiding them. In 2014 UNESCO appealed for assistance to conserve and restore the Timbuktu manuscripts and to continue making digital copies.
Voice of America reported that people in the city say the actions of Ansar Dine as unrelated to Islamic thought and teachings, but instead targeted at avenging the threats of the "international community" and the Western world-led War on Terror. Timbuktu MP in the National Assembly of Mali, Haïdara El Hadji Baba, said that "Ansar Dine’s real motivation in doing this was to defy the international community;” he cited the destructions as emanating after UNESCO's classification of the shrines as "in danger." He further warned that after Bensouda told the French media on 1 July that the actions could be called war crimes there could be more to come. "With its condemnations the international community is only intensifying Ansar Dine's desire to destroy." UNESCO's World Heritage Centre's Africa head, Lazare Eloundou Assomo, refused responsibility for the action in saying that it was "normal" for supranational bodies to denounce the destruction of what she termed "world heritage." She added: "Would you have UNESCO remain silent about this? No. It’s crucial that we declare that these sites are important to the entire world and it’s everyone’s responsibility to protect them." While Reuters was similarly critical of the move, it also cited Ansar Dine's Sanda Ould Boumama speaking to Radio France Internationale saying that "human beings cannot be elevated higher than God ... When the Prophet entered Mecca, he said that all the mausoleums should be destroyed. And that's what we're repeating."
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