Mali rebels destroy Caritas office, Catholic church

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Refugees from Northern Mali find shelter in neighbouring Niger. Credit: Galadima Souleymane-CADEV-Caritas Niger.

A Catholic church and the local office of Caritas Mali have been destroyed in the northern Mali town of Gao, amid uprisings by Tuareg rebels and an anti-government coup that some are blaming on the revolution in Libya.

“We have received calls from the small Catholic community left in Gao. They are now in hiding, fearing for their lives,” said Fr. Jean-Jacques, director of Caritas Gao. The priest said there are about 200 Catholics in Gao.

“Caritas staff fled Gao on Saturday. We learned from our guard today that the center and the church compound have been destroyed.”

Tuareg rebels have seized three regional capitals. The main rebel group is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. This group works alongside the Islamist group Ansar Edine, which has links to al-Qaida’s north African branch.

Caritas Mali is providing much needed food and seeds to over 100,000 people affected by a growing food crisis. Caritas members in Niger are also providing food to those refugees who have fled the conflict.

The conflict has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Théodore Togo, secretary general of Caritas Mali, said that most aid programs can continue if the rebels limit their activities to the north.

He reported that the Mali capital of Bamako is calm.

A coup last month overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré. The soldiers who led the coup cited the president’s handling of the Tuareg rebellion.

President Touré and others say the rebellion is due to the violent revolution in neighboring Libya.

Raymond Yoro, the national executive secretary of relief agency CADEV Niger, in March said the fighting in Mali’s north is “a direct consequence of what happened in Libya.”

“People left Libya with arms: they brought millions of tons of arms into Mali, and that is why there is a problem at the moment,” he told Caritas’ England and Wales partner CAFOD.

“I know that people in Europe see the revolution in Libya as a good thing, but for us it was very bad indeed,” Yoro continued, noting the hundreds of thousands of workers from Niger who worked in Libya and sent back remittances that were “very, very important” to the Niger economy.

During the Libyan revolution, he said, people there “lost their heads” and treated all sub-Saharan Africans as mercenaries who would fight to support former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

“People from Niger working in Libya were attacked and even murdered. They had no choice but to flee: they had to run for their lives,” he said.

The Economic Community of West African States has imposed an embargo and severe financial sanctions on Mali. The organization has closed Mali’s borders, cutting off fuel supplies, which are all imported.

Coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo has refused to step down, the Associated Press reports. He has invited Malians to join him at a convention to determine what transitional body will govern Mali before new elections are held.

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