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Islamist blockade on Timbuktu stops food and aid as prices spike

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) - A two-week blockade by Islamist militants has created food and aid shortages in the ancient city of Timbuktu, the mayor and residents said, as security deteriorates across much of northern and eastern Mali.

Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a fabled seat of Islamic learning on the edge of the Sahara desert, has been surrounded by violence ever since French forces liberated it from militants in 2013 after an uprising.

The unrest, driven by local affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State, has intensified over the past year after the West African country's military leaders kicked out French troops, asked United Nations' peacekeepers to leave, and teamed up with Russian private military contractor Wagner Group.

A local al Qaeda affiliate, known as JNIM, has blocked the roads to Timbuktu since around Aug. 13, residents said, cutting food staples and stopping humanitarian aid to the remote city of some 35,000 people whose economy has already been dented by the years of violence.

"We are witnessing a shortage of foodstuffs, with a general rise in prices," said Timbuktu mayor Aboubacrine Cisse.

"The trucks coming from Mauritania and Algeria no longer come," he told Reuters by telephone.

Cisse said he had set up a commission of about 30 religious and ethnic leaders to ask the militants to lift the embargo and that he hoped things would return to normal.

Timbuktu resident Imam Alphadi Wagaran said that fuel, gasoline, flour, couscous, milk and other food products were blocked.

"The shortage is felt. Prices are rising everywhere," he said.

The U.N. Humanitarian Agency said last week that some aid workers had been unable to reach the city by river and that there was a risk of health centres running out of medicine. The European Commission's humanitarian arm said some aid groups had suspended activities.

It was not clear what spurred the blockade. Earlier this month, JNIM said that its fighters had imposed a two-week siege on a village in Mali's Mopti region to pressure residents who had been helping the army, according to SITE Intelligence Group.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, is in the process of withdrawing from the north after the ruling junta asked them to leave in June. It was forced to speed up the process this month due to worsening security.

MINUSMA closed two bases in the Timbuktu region on Aug. 17, it said.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Additional reporting and writing by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Edward McAllister)