Mali's soccer victory caps Timbuktu's post-Islamist rebirth

Sun Feb 3, 2013 1:06pm EST
 
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By David Lewis

TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) - For months, Salaha Najim would discreetly put up a satellite dish banned by the Islamist rebels in dusty Timbuktu, close the shutters of his house and turn on the television to watch soccer with the sound turned down.

On Saturday, the windows were open wide again and the volume was unashamedly loud as Mali's national team, the Eagles, beat South Africa in a penalty shootout to reach the semifinals of the African Nations Cup.

Timbuktu's residents poured into the streets to chant and honk horns at the end of an extraordinary week that began with French troops ending the 10 months of harsh Islamic rebel rule and finished with football triumph and thousands cheering a visit by French President Francois Hollande.

"The Islamists banned everything," said Najim, beaming as he watched the game with two friends in his brown, flat-roofed house nestled in Timbuktu's warren of streets. "But now I can watch games as loud as I want."

A lightning three-week offensive by French air and ground forces has swiftly ended the occupation of Mali's northern towns by a loose alliance of Islamist rebels linked to al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM.

Across Timbuktu, French and Malian flags now hang side-by-side to celebrate the liberation and residents cheer the French military convoys that regularly pass by. The town was for centuries a hub in trans-Saharan trade and a center of Islamic learning before becoming a tourist magnet in recent decades.

Street markets bustle as residents try to replenish store cupboards run down during months of isolation. But uncertainty lingers over whether Mali's weak government and army can keep the Islamists at bay once French forces leave.

ETHNIC RIFTS   Continued...

 
Mali's captain Seydou Keita (12) celebrates with his teammates following their victory over South Africa during their African Cup of Nations (AFCON 2013) quarter-final soccer match at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, February 2, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward