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US aviation agents deny destroying Malian musician's instrument

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Bamako (AFP)

United States aviation security officials have denied destroying a precious traditional instrument belonging to a Malian musician, responding to an incident that sparked outrage online.

Renowned kora player Ballake Sissoko landed in Paris on February 4 after touring the US, to find that his instrument had been "completely destroyed" after he checked it in in New York.

The traditional West African 21-string lute had been dismantled, with a note left by the agents, in Spanish, reading "intelligent security saves time," according to a post on Sissoko's Facebook page.

"Would US customs have dared to dismantle a Stradivarius?" the post said, referring to a class of fabled violins.

"These kinds of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace," it added.

However, the US Transport Security Administration, which screens luggage for explosives, said in a statement to AFP on Sunday that it played no part in the damage.

It added that it knew agents did not search Sissoko's instrument case because "it did not trigger an alarm when it was screened," and was tagged appropriately.

The broken kora generated significant media interest and social media comment around the world this week after Sissoko suggested white musicians would have been treated better.

"This is an unprovoked and sad act of aggression, a reflection of the kind of cultural ignorance and racism that is taking over in so many parts of the world," his Facebook post said.

The musician told AFP that his kora was broken by the time he was in Paris, and admitted the airline could have been responsible.

"Maybe the message is too strong and I should have said it differently," Sissoko said.

He added, however, that he was shocked and angry that his kora was beyond repair and that whoever was responsible should have respected it.

"I'm not trying to play the media to get money," Sissoko said.

Adding to confusion surrounding the affair, Mali's culture ministry released a statement on Saturday saying it would "do everything legally and diplomatically possible to obtain reparation" for the offence.

But on Sunday it removed the statement from its website and issued another one that denied the earlier release came from the culture ministry, without giving further details.

Mali's Culture Minister N'Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo told AFP on Sunday that her department's statement on Saturday was simply "fake," without clarifying further.

Sissoko said that he been contacted by the Malian embassy in Paris about the kora incident and that he plans to meet government officials when he is next in Mali.

He added that friends had told him the government appeared to have asked for "reparation" but that he was unaware the statement had been removed.

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