British Embassy staff quit Mali after coup


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The Independent Online

Staff are being withdrawn from the British Embassy in Mali in the wake of the military coup.

The Foreign Office said the temporary measure would limit the UK's ability to help Britons who chose to remain in the Saharan state against official advice.

A spokesman said: "Given the unstable and unpredictable situation in Mali and the continuing lack of constitutional rule, the UK has decided to temporarily withdraw its staff from its embassy in Bamako and temporarily suspend all in country services immediately, including consular assistance.

"Consular assistance will continue to be provided to British nationals from our embassy in Dakar (in neighbouring Senegal) but the UK's ability to help British nationals who chose to remain in Mali may become limited.

"We have recommended since April 4 that British nationals should leave Mali as soon as possible by commercial means."

Mali's Tuareg rebels, who seized control of the country's north in the chaotic aftermath of the coup, today declared independence for what they called the Azawad nation.

They have been fighting for independence for the northern half of Mali for decades.

The March 21 coup in the distant capital of Bamako toppled Mali's elected government.

In a three-day period last weekend Tuareg fighters seized the three largest cities in the north, as soldiers dumped their uniforms and fled.

Their independence declaration cited 50 years of misrule by the country's southern-based administration and was issued by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, whose army is led by a Tuareg colonel who fought in the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's military.

The group is secular and its stated aim is creating a homeland for the Tuareg people.

But they were helped by an Islamist faction, Ansar Dine, which is now attempting to apply Sharia law to Mali's moderate north, including in the tourist destination of Timbuktu.

The unrest in Timbuktu prompted Britons Neil Whitehead and Diane English, who ran a hotel in the area, to flee with the help of soldiers and nomads after the desert city fell to rebel forces.

The pair made a dramatic escape after the area fell under rebel control on Sunday, arriving safely in the neighbouring west African country of Mauritania, where they have been offered help by the Foreign Office.

Mr Whitehead and Ms English, from Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, south Wales, own the Hotel Alafia on the edge of the Sahara desert and were running it with their team of local staff.

Information for tourists on the hotel's website reads: "The hotel is surrounded by high walls with double gates, which are locked at night, and a member of staff is on hand at all hours.

"However, crime is not a particular issue in Timbuktu and the owners have always felt safe in the town and elsewhere in Mali."

But the military coup that deposed Mali's president last month led to a deterioration in security, prompting the couple's flight.

Ms English's daughter, Hana Callard, said the couple tried to leave Timbuktu on Saturday but reached a military roadblock and so retreated, finally leaving on Sunday with the help of some rebels.

The former South Wales Argus journalist told the newspaper: "We saw on the news that the region had fallen to the rebels and we knew they were going to be in danger.

"It's been a worrying time but a bit surreal. It's something that happens to other people and not to you."

Her mother and Mr Whitehead hoped to return to the UK as soon as possible, she added.