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Swiss Woman Abducted In Northern Mali

4/16/2012 3:30 AM ET

A Swiss woman has been abducted by a group of unidentified gunmen in Mali's rebel-held northern city of Timbuktu, media reports citing local officials and residents said late on Sunday.

The woman, identified only as Beatrice, was reportedly seized by a six-member gang from her house in the Abaradjou neighborhood of Timbuktu on Sunday.

Beatrice, reportedly in her forties with command over several local languages, is said to have been living in Timbuktu for several years. Her abduction comes weeks after Islamist rebels captured the city along with a large portion of northern Mali earlier in the month, following a military coup.

Although no group has claimed responsibility for her abduction, officials are blaming Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the global terror network's North African wing. The group is said to be holding at least 13 Westerners hostage in the region.

The developments come after Mali's Tuareg rebels, backed by Islamist militants who want to impose Islamic law across the whole of the West African State, captured large areas of the Sahara region in the country's north earlier this month amid the chaos triggered by a military coup.

The rebels also declared independence for the region they call 'Azawad.' However, most of the international community, including the African Union, France and EU rejected the rebel independence declaration, and urged all sides involved to engage in talks to resolve the issue.

The Tuareg uprising demanding independence began decades ago, but intensified after the return of hundreds of Tuareg fighters who fought in Libya last year on behalf of slain dictator Col. Moammar Qadhafi. Dozens of soldiers have been killed in fighting Tuareg insurgents in recent months. The conflict has also forced more than 200,000 people to flee the Azawad region.

The March 22 coup in Mali was triggered by dissatisfaction among a large section of the military over government's failure to address their demands for better supplies and arms to tackle the Tuareg uprising in the North.

Since then, the coup leaders entered into an agreement with the regional ECOWAS grouping to return power to the civilian government in exchange for lifting sanctions against the military junta. In line with the power transition agreement, President Amadou Toumani Toure formally resigned from the post and Parliament Speaker Dioncounda Traore was sworn in as the country's interim President.

The capture of northern Mali by Tuareg rebels with the backing of Islamists has raised concerns about the presence AQIM in the region, which experts believe could further destabilize the security situation in the country.

AQIM is believed to have established itself in the Sahara desert between Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The group emerged in 2007 as an offshoot of an Algerian militant group before aligning itself with the globalterror network founded by Osama bin Laden. It has carried out several attacks and kidnappings in the region in recent years.

by RTT Staff Writer

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