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Wed Apr 23 09:11:14 SAST 2014

French, Malian forces patrol Timbuktu after hero's welcome

Sapa-AFP | 29 January, 2013 09:14
Children celebrate in Diafouke as Malian and French soldiers entered the historic city of Timbuktu.
Image by: ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP

French and Malian forces were patrolling Mali's fabled desert city of Timbuktu, after a hero's welcome following their lightning advance north.

But the city's mayor denounced what he called a crime against culture as fleeing Islamists torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts.

Financial aid meanwhile was beginning to flow into the troubled region.

On Tuesday, Japan announced it would give an extra $120 million to help stabilise Africa's Sahel region, days after 10 Japanese nationals were killed in the Algerian hostage siege.

The announcement came just hours before a donor conference for the Mali mission was due to get underway in Ethiopia.

Already on Monday the International Monetary Fund agreed to provide an $18.4 million emergency loan to Mali.

With the recapture of Timbuktu, only one Islamist stronghold remains to be retaken: the town of Kidal in the desert hills of the far north, 1 500 kilometres northeast of the capital Bamako.

Asked if French troops would press on to try to force the Islamists out of the mountainous north of the country, French President Francois Hollande said: "Now the Africans can take over...

"We know that this is the most difficult part because the terrorists are hidden there and can still carry out extremely dangerous operations, for neighbouring countries and Mali," he said from Paris.

Residents of the ancient city on the edge of the Sahara desert erupted in joy as French and Malian troops drove in on Monday. "Mali, Mali, Mali," they shouted, as they waved French and Malian flags.

"There were no shots fired, no blood spilt. Not even passive resistance with traps," Colonel Frederic Gout, head of French helicopter operations at the city, told AFP.

Residents said many of the Islamist occupiers had left several days ago, as French air strikes rained down on their bases across the north. The electricity and the phone networks were both out of action.

'A cultural crime'

As the Franco-Malian force approached the city however, reports emerged that a building housing tens of thousands of manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece had been set on fire.

Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, speaking from the capital Bamako, confirmed accounts of the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research.

"It's a real cultural crime," he said.

Set up in 1973, the centre housed between 60 000 and 100 000 manuscripts, according to Mali's culture ministry.

Timbuktu was for centuries a cosmopolitan city and a centre of Islamic learning.

Radical Islamists seized it in April 2012 as they took control of Mali's desert north in the chaos that followed a military coup last March.

They forced women in Timbuktu to wear veils, and those judged to have violated their strict version of Islamic law were whipped and stoned. The militants also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.

On Monday however, residents of the city were celebrating their new-found freedom.

Lahlia Garba, a woman in her fifties, expressed her relief that the hard-line Islamists had been forced out.

"I had to wear a burqa, gloves and cover everything," she said.

Hama Cisse, another Timbuktu resident, exclaimed: "We are independent again! We were held hostage for 10 months but it seemed like 10 years."

The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda warned Mali over reports its army had committed abuses.

Rights groups and journalists have reported allegations that Malian troops have executed suspects on the spot in towns recaptured during the offensive.

"All those alleged to be responsible for serious crimes in Mali must be held accountable," he said.

Monday's advance into Timbuktu, 1 000 kilometres north of Bamako, came 18 days after the French launched their offensive to wrest the vast desert north from the Islamists with the support of Malian troops.

France now has 2 900 soldiers in Mali.

Nearly 8 000 African troops from Chad and the west African bloc ECOWAS are expected to take over from them, but their deployment has been slow, with 2 700 split between Mali and Niger.

The African-led force will require a budget of $460 million, the African Union said on the final day of its summit in Addis Ababa on Monday, promising to contribute $50 million for the mission.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said London was keen to contribute more than the two transport planes and a surveillance aircraft it has already provided.

British media reports on Tuesday suggested up to 200 troops might be involved: around 40 in Mali as part of an EU mission to train Malian soldiers, the rest training a regional intervention force in neighbouring countries.

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Wed Apr 23 09:11:14 SAST 2014 ::