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Here’s a close look at Mali:

Geography: Mali is a vast, landlocked nation that straddles the Sahara Desert and whose borders touch Algeria to the north and Ivory Coast to the south, linking North Africa with sub-Saharan Africa. Mali also borders Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

Mali’s north is now under the rule of radical Islamists, whereas the weak central government is in the country’s south. The fighting between French forces and the Islamists is taking place in the middle of the country in an effort to keep the extremists from spreading farther south toward the seat of power.

People and culture: Mali is home to some 15.8 million people, about 1.62 million of whom live in the capital of Bamako, divided by the Niger River. Mali’s population reflects a rich diversity of cultures including the Bambara, the Malinke and the Peul. The country’s north is also home to Arabs and the Tuaregs, who have led a number of rebellions against the central government over the years.

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Mali is world-famous for its musicians, including the late Ali Farka Toure. The fabled city of Timbuktu and the mud mosque of Djenne and the region known as Dogon Country are major cultural treasures.

Religion: Mali is 90 percent Muslim, and Timbuktu is a historically significant site of Islamic learning with some 20,000-catalogued manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century.

The Islam followed by Malians for centuries is a moderate form, although extremists began implementing a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah last year when they took over the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, and razed historic tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque in Timbuktu. They also have carried out public executions and amputations, as well as whippings for infractions ranging from possessing cigarettes to women going out without headscarves.

Economy: Many Malians are subsistence farmers, raising millet, sorghum, rice and corn. However, the country’s third-largest export after cotton and livestock is gold. Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is estimated to have the second-highest infant mortality rate, with only Afghanistan higher. Life expectancy is a mere 53 years, and only 20 percent of women can read and write.

Malian women on average have about six children each, and it is not uncommon for children to work.

Government: Mali slid into dictatorship after gaining independence from France in 1960, but then a 1991 coup led to elections the next year. Mali’s then-president stepped down after the maximum two-term limit, and Amadou Toumani Toure, known as ATT, was peacefully elected in 2002.

Toure was just months away from the end of his term when mutinous soldiers overthrew him in a coup in March 2012. The coup leader nominally handed over power to a weak, interim civilian government but is widely believed to still be controlling the country. The turmoil has left Mali’s military in disarray, raising questions about how helpful Malian soldiers can be.

Source: World Bank,

CIA World Factbook

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