The taking back of Timbuktu
French and Malian troops sealed off Timbuktu, a Unesco World Heritage Site, yesterday after fleeing Islamist rebels torched several buildings in the ancient Saharan trading town, including a priceless manuscript library.
Without a shot being fired to stop them, 1000 French soldiers including paratroopers and 200 Malian troops seized the airport and surrounded the centuries-old Niger River city, looking to block the escape of al-Qaeda-allied fighters.
The retaking of Timbuktu followed the swift capture by French and Malian forces at the weekend of Gao, another major northern Malian town that had been occupied by the alliance of Islamist militant groups since last year.
A two-week intervention by France in its former Sahel colony, at the request of Mali's government but also with wide international backing, has driven the Islamist rebels into the desert and mountains.
A French military spokesman said the assault forces at Timbuktu were being careful to avoid combat inside the city so as not to damage cultural treasures, mosques and religious shrines in what is considered a seat of Islamic learning.
But Timbuktu's mayor, Ousmane Halle, reported that fleeing Islamist fighters had torched a South African-funded library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts.
"The rebels set fire to the newly constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... this happened four days ago," Halle Ousmane said.
He said he had received the information from his chief of communications, who had travelled south from the city a day ago.
Ousmane could not say how much the concrete building had been damaged.
He said the rebels also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.
The Ahmed Baba Institute is one of several libraries and collections containing fragile ancient documents dating back to the 13th century.
It is named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and houses more than 20000 scholarly manuscripts. Some were stored in underground vaults.
The French and Malians have faced no resistance so far at Timbuktu, but face a tough job of combing through the labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes between alleys to flush out any hiding Islamist fighters.