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Northern Mali braces for Ramadan under strict Islamic rule

By Serge Daniel

GAO, Mali (AFP) - Normally a joyous time of fasting and prayer, the looming Muslim month of Ramadan has raised fears of stricter rule by the jihadists occupying the north Malian town of Gao.

The power cuts, water shortages and high food prices that have hit Mali's occupied north at a time when the sun scorches at some 40 degrees C (101 F) have also dried up enthusiasm.

"I am afraid that the Islamists will take advantage of the Ramadan period to toughen the rules with, for example, a ban on smoking and watching television," said a teacher in the Sahel town, which borders Niger.

Ordinarily eating, drinking, smoking and sex are forbidden between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, as Muslims try to give up bad habits and boost self-control. Families typically break the fast together with a festive meal at sundown, after which the daytime bans are lifted.

But the normally moderate Muslims in northern Mali are wary after having the strict Islamic law known as sharia thrust upon them by hardline Islamist groups who have seized the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

"We will spend Ramadan under very peculiar conditions," said Al Hadj Bany Maiga, member of a mosque managing committee, referring to the presence of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Gao.

MUJAO has been more relaxed in its approach to sharia than the group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) in Timbuktu, who have whipped unmarried couples, smokers and drinkers and destroyed ancient shrines seen as idolatrous.

"We are not docile like the residents of Timbuktu," said Alpha Maiga, a member of a youth organisation in Gao. "One can't force us to do anything. We will apply the Islam taught to us by our parents."

MUJAO eased up after a series of violent anti-Islamist protests in May and June which left one dead and many injured. But as allies of Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who want a strict sharia state, it is not clear how long MUJAO's comparative tolerance will last.

The town imams have held a meeting on Gao's "doctrinal organisation" during Ramadan.

"There will be no inflammatory sermons. Preachers will be Malian. Foreigners will not come here to deliver sermons," a Muslim leader told AFP, on an exclusive trip under MUJAO protection to a town which has been off-limits to western news organisations for over three months.

Many foreign jihadists are reportedly present in the town.

MUJAO also sought to allay fears about Ramadan, and Abdoul Hakim, the group's "emir" for Gao, said he will "allow people to pray as they are used to doing. We will give sugar and food to all the mosques in Gao."

A local journalist told AFP: "The Islamists are keeping in mind the last uprising of the population. They are doing everything" to avoid a repeat.

The gruelling month of fasting will be made harder by recurring power cuts in the desert town, whose residents are also facing a stiff rise in food prices at a time when they need to cough up for lavish feasts to break the fast each day.

"Really, it is difficult, Ramadan in July. Suburbs are stuck without lights for two days. It is so hot and you can't find ice," complained a local radio presenter.

Cut off from Mali's smaller southern region, with half the town's population having fled -- leaving about 35,000 -- times are hard for those who remain.

"To do Ramadan well you need a lot of supplies. But with the current situation there is no money," said local official Hamadi Maiga.

Mechanic Issa Alassane Abidine echoed his sentiments: "There is no money. When you fast all day, at night you must regain your strength with a balanced meal."

About 30 Malians decided to leave Gao by bus to spend a better Ramadan with their relatives in Niger, an AFP correspondent said.

The effective partition of Mali has plunged the country into crisis.

The takeover of the north, an area larger than France, was spearheaded by Tuareg rebels, who wanted an independent, secular state. But the Islamists fighting on the Tuaregs' flanks turned on their allies and chased them out of key positions.

Officials in Bamako, far to the south, face a host of other problems in the wake of a March 22 military coup.

Embattled interim authorities are grappling for solutions to win back the north as they try to form a unity government and stop attacks against public figures and journalists in the capital.