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British couple flee Timbuktu as town falls to al-Qaida

A British couple made a dramatic escape from Timbuktu, Mali, after the town fell to fighters linked to al-Qaida, The Daily Telegraph of London reported Wednesday.

The newspaper said militiamen aided Neil Whitehead, 58, and Diane English, 53, in making an 850-mile desert trek to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania.

The couple since 2010 operated the budget Hotel Alafia, catering to backpackers and independent travelers, until they learned al-Qaida offered to pay for their deaths, the Telegraph said.

Read the original story in The Telegraph

The town fell to the al-Qaida-linked fighters last weekend after a military coup left the area defenseless. The couple tried to leave Saturday but fleeing Mali soldiers blocked the roads, The Telegraph said.

English told the Telegraph the couple ran into a firefight she called “rather alarming.”

“We went back to the house again to keep our heads down but there was a lot of firing in the town -- it was clear a lot of people had a lot of weapons," English told the Telegraph.

British and French diplomats helped arrange their escape through the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the main rebel group in the region, the report said. This Tuareg force helped kinfolk in Libya during that country's civil war, then returned with weapons looted from Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s abandoned armories.

The MNLA told alleged al-Qaida members hunting for the couple that they had already left, the Telegraph said. It's not clear what the relationship between the MNLA and the al-Qaida-linked fighters is.

After a three-day, largely sleepless excursion in old army trucks, the couple are seeking refuge in the French Embassy in Nouakchott, the Telegraph reported.

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A British couple reportedly fled from Timbuktu, Mali, to Nouakchott, Mauritania.

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