Islamists gone, Gao minorities now face fear of reprisals

A thin dust of flour on the floor is all that remains in the Arab-owned store in Gao, looted in a wave of reprisals against those accused of helping the northern Malian city's former Islamist occupiers.

Gao's light-skinned Arab and Tuareg residents face the violent anger of their black neighbours since French and Malian troops reclaimed the city from the rebels of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) on Saturday.

At this prominent Arab businessman's store in the southeast of town, looters ripped the windows and doors from their frames and carted away countless sacks of flour, leaving nothing behind.

Near the main market, other Arab-owned shops were also sacked or hastily closed.

"The Arabs are gone. They're lucky, because we had a sad fate in store for them," says Ousmane, a local shopkeeper.

"If we'd caught them, they'd have been finished," adds Ibrahim, a merchant.

Gao, the largest city seized by the Islamists who capitalised on the chaos of a military coup to occupy northern Mali for 10 months, sits about 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) northeast of the capital, Bamako.

It had some 90,000 people before the crisis caused more than 350,000 Malians, including many from Gao, to flee their homes.

The Al Qaeda-linked Islamists in the north implemented a harsh version of Islamic law, with public amputations, floggings and executions for offenders.

In Gao, as in Timbuktu and other towns in the north, the nightmare of violence has not ended with the rebels' ouster for those accused of supporting them.

Locals have beaten up alleged Islamist allies, raising fears of a widespread settling of scores.

France, the United States and the European Union have all warned of the danger of reprisal attacks against ethnic minorities -- including the Tuareg, a nomadic Berber people with a history of rebellion against the south, the most recent of which unleashed the current crisis and helped pave the way for the Islamists' takeover.

In Gao, Tuareg and other light-skinned Malians have disappeared from the streets, fearful of their Songhai and Fula neighbours.

"A lot of them left for the bush, to nomadic camps," Mahamadou Moussa, a house-painter, told AFP. "Those who aren't accused of anything are hiding at home."

"Living together won't be possible in the near future. We're still bearing the scars of the (Islamists') abuses," said Alassane Mamane, speaking in Independence Square -- renamed "Sharia Square" by the occupiers, who doled out public punishments there.

"A dozen people had their hands cut off, five others had an arm and a foot cut, and prisoners had their throats slit" -- but no Arabs or Tuaregs, he said, adding: "That's the most shocking thing of all."

Gao's governor, Adama Diallo, who returned from exile on Tuesday, said the Malian state must urgently re-establish itself in the region.

"The justice system must be restored as quickly as possible," he said, "to avoid people taking justice into their own hands."

Sitting in front of his house on a dusty street, El Hadj Ibrahim, the imam at a local mosque, says he preaches tolerance at every prayer hour.

"Control yourselves, let's stay united," he says as if addressing his flock. "Don't let yourselves be carried away by hatred and vengeance."

"The people who collaborated with the Islamists should be arrested and tried, but innocent people should be allowed to live in peace," adds Bilal, a local youth.

"These are our brothers despite everything, and rich businessmen too. Without them this region's economy is nothing."