Organizers lament cancellation of Timbuktu music festival

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The last-minute cancellation of a well-known music festival in Timbuktu that had drawn thousands of foreigners to the remote Mali city marks a missed opportunity to bring hope to a former tourist hub struggling to recover after years of extremist threats, organizers said.

The Festival of the Desert has not taken place in northern Mali since 2012, when armed groups including al-Qaida-linked extremists took over the region and imposed a strict form of Islamic law that banned music. Despite a French-led military intervention four years ago, the region remains unstable.

Nevertheless, Manny Ansar, the festival's founding director, planned to revive it in Timbuktu last weekend. The U.N. peacekeeping mission had been expected to provide a flight for musicians and guests traveling from the capital, Bamako, and organizers promised guests would "stay in a secure location."

But less than two days before the U.N. flight was to depart, Malian officials decided to cancel the event, citing security worries. The decision came one week after a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden vehicle into a military camp in the northern city of Gao, killing dozens of fighters who were supposed to be forming joint security patrols after a 2015 peace agreement with the government.

The tourist economy of Timbuktu, an intellectual and spiritual capital home to historic mausoleums and other monuments, has been devastated in recent years, and the festival's return could have provided a badly needed injection of money and hope, said Paul Chandler, a festival partner.

"The festival returning to Timbuktu would be an amazing thing. I mean, I suppose it's more symbolic for the moment, but definitely for the population it would be inspirational," he said.