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Mali's government vows to recover territory

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Mali's embattled interim government has ramped up diplomatic efforts to save the north from rebel fighters who have destroyed World Heritage shrines in Timbuktu and have reportedly rigged another city with mines.

The interim government in the capital Bamako, set up after the March 22 coup which led to a takeover in the north as armed groups exploited the resulting chaos, has been scrambling for assistance to regain its territory.

"We will do everything to recover our territory," Sadio Lamine Sow, Mali's foreign minister, told the AFP news agency, speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Algeria, where he held talks with authorities in Algiers.

The post-coup transition government has struggled to assert its authority in the face of armed al-Qaeda-allied groups occupying the north, and Mali's neighbours in west Africa have proposed a stronger unity government be formed.

West African leaders will meet in Burkina Faso's capital on Saturday to discuss this option with senior Malian political figures, as the Islamist rebels escalate efforts to exert their control in the country's north.

Shrines destroyed

In Timbuktu, where Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) have enforced sharia law for the past three months, the Islamist group has smashed seven tombs of ancient Muslim saints as well as the 'sacred door' to a 15th-century mosque.

The destruction has deeply upset many Malians and prompted outpourings of condemnation from abroad.

UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, called on Tuesday for an end to the "repugnant acts" of destruction and called for the creation of an emergency fund for securing the cultural treasures and sending a mission to assess the damage.

Sow condemned the armed groups now controlling the cities in northern Mali as "armed terrorists".

"It is they who are raping women, pillaging banks" and conducting a campaign of destruction, he said, saying these acts were crimes against humanity and would not go unpunished.

Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor, has warned that the destruction of religious and historical buildings could amount to a war crime and those responsible could face prosecution.

Seizing the upper hand

Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria's African Affairs Minister, said Algiers was working on a political solution to the situation in Mali that both countries believed was still possible, saying it was on the right path.

"Everything that can be done for us towards a reconquest of these occupied territories, we will accept it willingly ... when these efforts go in the direction we agree with," he added.

A March 22 coup in Mali eased the way for Tuareg separatist rebels to seize an area in the north larger than France that they consider their homeland.

However, Ansar Dine group seized the upper hand while fighting on their flanks.

Openly allied with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they have since pushed the Tuareg rebels from all positions of power.

After expelling the Tuareg fighters from the key city of Gao in deadly clashes last week, Ansar Dine's al-Qaeda allies have reportedly planted landmines around the city to prevent a possible counter-offensive.

The Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) said on Monday that residents were being prevented from leaving the city.


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