At least two people have been killed and five wounded when artillery fire hit the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, a month and a half into a blockade by fighters in the area.
Attacks in northern Mali have more than doubled since United Nations peacekeepers completed the first phase of their withdrawal last month after a decade of fighting armed groups, resulting in more than 150 deaths.
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“The city of Timbuktu has come under terrorist shellfire this afternoon,” the military said in a statement on Thursday, adding a “provisional toll” of two dead and five wounded.
The al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM) in August declared “war in the Timbuktu region”, warning supply trucks from neighbouring regions not to enter the city.
A month and a half later, tens of thousands of inhabitants remain almost completely cut off from the world and are struggling to survive.
Baba Mohamed, a seller at Timbuktu’s market, said the situation is getting more desperate by the day. “The market is currently very difficult because if it goes on like this a lot of stores will close,” he told Al Jazeera.
“If foodstuffs like oil, milk, sugar, rice and millet do not come in normally, it is going to be difficult for the population.”
Fighters have extended their hold over rural areas around the better-defended towns in northern Mali, aiming to increase pressure on the central government.
After more than three years in power, Mali’s military government is struggling to fight growing violence in a hard-hit northern region after demanding the withdrawal of about 17,000 UN peacekeepers.
At the same time, a 2015 peace deal with ethnic Tuareg rebels appears to have collapsed, deepening the security crisis.
The UN warned of an unfolding humanitarian crisis if the current situation continues in Timbuktu.
“The siege has created some kind of havoc. Those that can afford to leave Timbuktu leave Timbuktu,” Mohammed Askia Toure, the UN refugee agency representative to Mali, told Al Jazeera.
“Our office in Mauritania are noticing the arrival of thousands and thousands of Malians fleeing Timbuktu, fleeing the region where today they do not have some kind of safe haven.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has already registered more than 33,000 people who have fled the Timbuktu and Taoudeni regions in northern Mali, heading for Mauritania and Algeria to escape the violence.
Armed groups almost doubled the territory they control there in less than a year, according to a recent UN report. In one brazen attack, fighters targeted a triple-decker passenger boat, killing 49 civilians.