TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — Mali's military has detained eight Arab men in Timbuktu, throwing them into a pickup truck and covering it with a tarp in a sweep that has raised fears of further reprisals against the region's Arab minority, whose members are accused of having supported the al-Qaida-linked groups which overran northern Mali last year.
Family members and witnesses late Saturday confirmed the arrests. The eight, picked up Thursday by the military, were among the last Arabs still living in this northern outpost. Hundreds of others have fled to the neighboring nations of Algeria and Mauritania, where they are living in refugee camps.
Seventy-year-old Ali Ould Mohamed Kalbali was trembling when he was forced by Malian soldiers out of his boutique, stocked with nothing more than a few boxes of sardines and mostly-empty cartons of soap, said eyewitnesses, including his son, Ibrahim Ould Ali. An online petition was being circulated by friends and supporters, showing a picture of the elderly man, his face framed by a grey beard.
Salt seller Mohamed Ould Dahama was at home with his brother, when the soldiers came and asked for him, said his son Boubacar Sadigh.
"The soldiers came in a car on which they had installed a tarp cover. It stopped in front of our door. One of the soldiers said, 'Mohamed, we have a question that we want to ask you.' Once he went outside, the soldiers threw themselves on him to make him get in the car," said the son.
They then forced the brother, Dana Ould Dahama, to come out.
"I was repairing shoes in my shop when I saw the soldiers who forced Dana out of his house. I could see them through the door of my boutique. His hands had been tied with his turban and two soldiers picked him up and threw him in the back of the car," said Ibrahim Ag Mahmoud, a cobbler in the Abaradjou neighborhood.
Mohamed Ould Mohamed Lamine, a merchant, was grabbed while walking in the street, said his wife, Mariam Mint Elbakaye.
Finally four truck drivers were also grabbed from the Abaradjou neighborhood the same day, said a resident who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. An Associated Press reporter saw their idle trucks.
Col. Keiba Sangare, in charge of operations for the region of Timbuktu, refused to confirm or deny that the eight had been arrested, and said only: "The gendarmerie is carrying out an investigation."
Earlier this month, reporters from the AP discovered the bodies of two Arab men, buried in a shallow grave in a dune outside Timbuktu. Witnesses identified the dead as two Arab men who were last seen on Jan. 28 being arrested by the military.
For 10 months last year, most of northern Mali, including Timbuktu, was ruled by rebel groups with ties to al-Qaida. They imposed harsh Shariah rule, whipping uncovered women, destroying the city's ancient shrines and amputating the hands of accused thieves. In their attempt to rule the region, they allied themselves with the north's Arab and Tuareg populations, many of whom entered the ranks of the city's Islamic police.
Last month, France led a military intervention to take back the north, opening the way for Mali's military to return to the cities they had been forced to abandon last April. Human rights groups have long warned that the military, humiliated by their defeat last year at the hands of the Islamic extremists, would carry out reprisals against the Arab and Tuareg civilians left behind.
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi
Baba Ahmed can be reached at www.twitter.com/babahmed1