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World Heritage status breathes new hope into Niger's Agadez


Locals in Niger's historic city of Agadez are optimistic that its inclusion on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites will bring tourists back after years of unrest in the area drove visitors away from its famed mudbrick buildings.

"The news has swept across the city like sand in the desert. It's incredible, thank you UNESCO!" Hadil, an Internet cafe manager in Agadez, told AFP over the telephone from Niger's capital Niamey.

In bestowing Agadez's historical centre with the World Heritage status on Saturday, UNESCO said the city bears "witness to an exceptional architectural tradition, based on sophisticated use of mudbrick" which gives the city its ochre-coloured aspect.

"Our joy is immense and it is showing on many people's faces. We've been waiting for this for a long time, and finally it has happened. Agadez deserves this," official Moussa Ibrahim said.

In Niamey, Niger's culture ministry rejoiced in what it described as a "great victory" after a "culmination of efforts".

Founded in the 15th and 16th century about a thousand kilometres (621 miles) north of the capital, Agadez is renowned for its grand mosque and 27-metre high (88 feet) minaret -- the tallest ever built in mudbrick -- as well as the Sultan's Palace.

Characterised by an adobe architecture -- unfired clay brick obtained by sun drying -- Agadez is in many ways reminiscent of the fabled desert city of Timbuktu in neighbouring Mali.

But just like Timbuktu, which in 2012 fell into the hands of Islamists before Malian and French forces flushed them out earlier this year, the threat of violence and extremist rebels has too cast a dark shadow over Agadez.

In its heyday in the 1980s, some say Agadez was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Niger. But in the 1990s the city descended into unrest on the back of Tuareg minority rebellions.

In recent years, the region has also been shaken by the presence of Al Qaeda-linked Islamist extremists, who have carried out several high-profile abductions -- causing an already dwindling tourist flow to decline even further.

On May 23, over 20 people were killed when militants staged twin suicide car bomb attacks on an Agadez army base and a French-run uranium mine 200 kilometres north of the city. It was the first time that Agadez had been targeted by such an attack.

Locals felt that the hope of reviving the city's tourism was more distant that ever.

"Insecurity is a global scourge," said Mohamed Anako, a former rebel who is now president of Agadez's regional council, adding that they would have to "bend over backwards to get people to visit our emblematic city".

Niger's army has taken steps to secure the area and dismantle illegal immigration rings set up in the city, but the region remains vulnerable, lying wide open to the vast Saharan landscape.

-- Hopeful for the return of tourism --

The World Heritage status "is the first good news for Agadez" in more than two decades, said Ibrahim Maha, the head of a local travel agency.

"Now, we all hope that this will be a strong signal to attract tourists. We also expect a little boost from UNESCO on that side of things," he said.

Agadez Ahmed Moussa, an artisan who produces handicrafts, said: "Our prayer is that this will help bring the tourists back."

Travel agencies are few and far between in the city, with many agents shutting up shop long ago over insecurity fears -- a bizarre twist for a city whose name translates as "visit" in Tamasheq, a Tuareg tribe language.

Agadez was "not chosen by chance" by the Tuaregs, said Agali Mohamed, a native of the region who now lives in Niamey. "It's a crossroads for the main trans-Saharan routes."

Nowadays, the historical centre -- home to about 20,000 people -- can best be described as a "sleeping beauty".

Magnificent brick buildings, many of them dilapidated, line the city's narrow and winding streets.

As the call for prayer rang out from Agadez's impressive minaret, one local looked up to admire the centuries-old architecture.

"It's a miracle that the local material framework has been able to withstand time," he said.