TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — One of the last Arab men still living in the city of Timbuktu was seen being taken away Thursday by soldiers, who arrested him hours after he gave an interview to a political scientist. Acquaintances and witnesses say the elderly man's hands were bound and he was trembling when he was shoved into the back of a pickup truck.
The arrest of 70-year-old Ali Ould Mohamed Kalbali comes as refugee camps in neighboring Algeria and Mauritania are ballooning with Mali's Arab and Tuareg families, minorities who are afraid of reprisals because they are accused of having aided the al-Qaida-linked rebels who overran Mali's north last year.
Timbuktu was liberated by French and Malian forces two weeks ago, and already the bodies of two Arab men have been discovered in a shallow grave. Like Kalbali, the two were last seen being arrested by Malian soldiers.
On Thursday at around 8:30 a.m., Kalbali spoke to Pierre Piccinin da Prata, a political scientist, who asked him what it was like to be among the last Arabs still living in Timbuktu. Piccinin says the elderly man reassured him that he was well-treated and did not fear for his security. After finishing, Piccinin says he set off for his return voyage to Bamako, Mali's distant capital. Only two hours later, he received a call from his guide back in Timbuktu, saying soldiers had come to take Kalbali away.
"He's an old man. His identity card says he was born in 1943. He had a small shop, stocked with three boxes of sardines and two packets of sugar," Piccinin told The Associated Press by telephone. "I saw him between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. My guide called me at 11 to say that he had been arrested."
A woman who lives in a neighboring house said she saw Kalbali being taken away. Mourkher Traore said that the old man was trembling when the soldiers came for him. She said his hands were tied together and he was shaking so much that he couldn't get into the back of their pickup truck, and she says the soldiers violently shoved him inside. When she cried out, they threatened her: "I started screaming and one of the soldiers said that if I don't shut up, they are going to shoot me," she said.
Capt. Samba Coulibaly, spokesman for the Malian military in Timbuktu, refused to confirm that the man had been arrested. He hung up on reporters asking him about the incident.
Fearing for his safety, Kalbali on Wednesday had gone to give a gift of a bull to the soldiers at the military camp, said neighbor M'Barka Houdhoud. He was accompanied by the head of the neighborhood where he lives. The donation was meant to ensure his security. He is one of only a handful of Arab families who have stayed on in Timbuktu. Hundreds of others have fled, fearing violence from Mali's military, which is overwhelmingly made up of soldiers recruited from Mali's darker-skinned ethnic groups in the south.
On Thursday, Kalbali's son was beside himself with worry.
"I am afraid that they will do to him what they did to the others," said the man's son, Ibrahim Ould Ali. "I am afraid that they are going to kill him."
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Timbuktu, Mali.
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at —www.twitter.com/rcallimachi.