By Laurent Prieur
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - For British couple Neil Whitehead and Diane English, the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu meant good friends and big plans for the future. They named their hotel "Alafia" - a local expression of peace.
But that changed just over a week ago as rebels stormed into town alongside local Islamists including al Qaeda agents. The couple owe their escape to a rebel faction that understood that spending one more day in Timbuktu could cost them their lives.
"Pack one bag, bring the dog - we are going," Whitehead recalls of the terse instructions of a rebel commander as they were bundled into a four-wheel drive for a 12-hour race across the dunes to safety in neighboring Mauritania.
The couple first settled in the historic desert trading town in 2010 and decided to make a living there despite a spate of kidnappings on the southern rim of the Sahara that had brought the tourist sector in Africa's Sahel region to its knees.
Re-telling their story on the terrace of an inn in the dusty Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, Whitehead and English piece together the blurred sequence of events as the rebels overran the regular army and seized the town on April 1.
A first attempt to flee failed as all roads out of the town were blocked by retreating Malian forces, forcing them to return back home. A second bid also failed as they ran into a gun battle and had to turn back again.
It was then that they were made an unexpected offer: the French embassy had contacts with secular Tuareg-led MNLA rebels who, it emerged, were offering them safe passage away from al Qaeda-linked factions searching the streets for Westerners.
"After a brief discussion we agreed this was probably the only way out," said Whitehead, 58.
SAFE BUT PENNILESS
The MNLA group briefly hid the couple by the airport outside of town before deciding the only safe option was outright flight. They left their belongings in a truck and, with one bag each and their local Sahelian dog Milly, took to the desert.
"It was hard and bouncy and difficult. We stopped occasionally but not often and I do have the bruises to prove it," said English, 53, of the overnight 300-km (200-mile) journey to just inside the Mauritanian border.
They had a wait of several hours before the local police picked them up and took them to Noakchott, where the couple - safe but penniless - now ponder their next steps in life.
"Our immediate hope is to be reunited with our truck and I guess go back to Britain and earn some money because we have no income and we have a lot investment there (in Mali)," said English, who like Whitehead is from the Welsh town of Abergavenny.
Whether their hotel or other projects, such as an Internet cafe and a local village school, get back on track now depends on Mali's uncertain future after a rebel sweep that has put the entire northern half of the country outside government control.
It also depends on the internal balance of power between the rebel factions such as the MNLA, which has a secular goal of creating a new northern state, and their loose Islamist allies whose aim is to impose sharia, Islamic law, across all of Mali.
In the chaos that now rules in the area, it is hard to say who - either among the rebellion or local opportunists - is responsible for mass pillaging in major towns that has targeted everything from emergency food supplies to medical provisions.
Whitehead says he and English are regularly in touch by telephone with a local business partner still in Timbuktu, who tells them that premises found selling alcohol have been set alight while cars in the street have been smashed.
"If the situation is resolved and peace returns we would want to go back and take part in rebuilding what must have been destroyed by these fanatics," he vows.
(Writing by Mark John; Editing by Alison Williams)