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Sporadic rebellions failed to wrest Timbuktu from government hands. When the 1990-95 uprising to win autonomy for Tuaregs in Mali and Niger ended in peaceful negotiations, Timbuktu was the chosen site for the symbolic burning of weapons signaling an end to the conflict.

Recently, the town’s tourism industry has been threatened by the rise of a thriving African branch of al Qaeda, whose fighters in November kidnapped a Dutch, a Swedish and a South African citizen from a restaurant in Timbuktu. A German man who refused to be taken hostage was executed.

Despite fears of insecurity, the Festival in the Desert was held in January, attracting people from 50 countries, according to its website, including a special appearance by U2 frontman Bono.