TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — The body of an old man known as The Last Arab of Timbuktu, the symbol of ethnic minority Arabs who died or disappeared in a backlash against the al-Qaida occupation, has been found buried in the desert.
The Associated Press' discovery of the body of Ali Ould Kabbad and five others provides the first concrete evidence for the ethnic killings, which human rights groups have blamed on Mali's military. In each case, the victims were last seen taken away by Malian soldiers at gunpoint.
Mali's government, which has been promised $4.2 billion in world aid, has denied the killings, and declined to comment further. Mali's military reacted angrily.
"You have no proof. Show me the proof!" said Col. Diarran Kone, spokesman for Mali's ministry of defense. After hearing that the AP found the bodies, he added: "We have nothing more to say about this."
The latest racial violence dates back to a 10-month-long al-Qaida-led occupation of northern Mali, during which the Arabic-speaking fighters gave key posts to the ethnic Arabs and Tuaregs who shared their light skin tone. Traditionally nomadic Arabs and Tuaregs make up about 10 percent of Mali's 15.9 million people, the majority of whom are black.
The backlash against them started after France sent troops into its former colony in January to drive out al-Qaida and allow Mali's army to return. Tens of thousands of Arabs and Tuaregs fled.
Those who stayed paid with their lives. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say at least 24 people were killed by the military since the beginning of the year, and 11 disappeared.
During more than a dozen trips to the dunes, The Associated Press dug up enough sand to spot six bodies, and then brought back families to identify the remains. Soldiers, residents and even children helped direct the AP to the locations, but all asked that their names not to be used out of fear for their lives.
The best-known case was that of Kabbad, a 70-year-old grandfather known as Vieux Ali, or Old Ali, one of a handful of Arabs who stayed after the Malian army returned. Vieux Ali refused to leave, saying he was born in Mali and his ancestors had lived in the city since the time of its founding saint, who died in the 1500s.
He vanished the morning of Feb. 14, when multiple witnesses said he was arrested by soldiers, shoved into the back of a truck and put under a tan-colored tarp.
As the soldiers prepared to leave, Maoloud Fassoukoy, one of the old man's black neighbors, ran to the truck screaming, "No! He's not the enemy!" The soldiers grabbed Fassoukoy, too, witnesses said.
The military denied responsibility in public, but quietly launched an internal investigation under heavy pressure from rights groups, as well as the French. An investigator who spoke only on condition of anonymity said the Ministry of Defense detained five soldiers for questioning in February but let them go a few weeks later.
He said the investigators were taken to the bodies in the desert by a shepherd who had been hiding nearby at the time of the killings. The same shepherd took the AP to the site, and marked the spot of each grave by drawing an X in the sand with his finger.
Vieux Ali's family had fled Mali, so the AP brought Sidi Fassoukoy, the younger brother of Ali's black neighbor Maoloud, to the grave. Fassoukoy identified his brother's body by the white Reebok shoes and orange batik print shirt he wore.
Fassoukoy also identified the rubber sandals on the body lying next to his brother's.
"These are the shoes of the old man," he said. "This is Vieux Ali."
Two of Vieux Ali's sons, Ibrahim and Mohamed Ould Ali, verified that the sandals belonged to their father from digital photographs taken by the AP. The sandals were plastic and wide-soled, the closest thing the old man could find to orthopedic shoes, with a slight tear above the left toe from frequent use.
"It's removed the doubt," said Mohamed, who keeps a yellowing Post-it note in his wallet with the names of victims. "It's like I can finally see the truth. I was chasing after a mirage. Because of my love for him, I kept hoping that he would be found alive.
"Now can they continue to deny it?"