Jets pound Mali rebels

04 February 2013 - 02:24 By Reuters

French warplanes pounded Islamist rebel camps in the far north of Mali, military sources said, hours after French President Francois Hollande visited the West African country.

Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French army in Paris, said yesterday that the overnight raids targeted logistics bases and training camps to the north of the desert town of Kidal used by the al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

He said the bombing raids were around the settlement of Tessalit, close to the Algerian border, one of the main gateways into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains where the rebels are believed to be hiding after fleeing major towns.

Malian military sources said French and Chadian troops had clashed with members of the Ansar Dine militant group in the region around Kidal on Saturday.

French attack helicopters and transport planes carrying special forces left the city of Gao to reinforce the French and Chadian contingent at the airport in Kidal.

Kidal is controlled by pro-autonomy MNLA Tuareg rebels, who occupied it after Ansar Dine fighters fled six days ago.

France has deployed 3500 troops, fighter jets and armoured vehicles for the three-week-old Operation Serval (Wildcat), which has broken the Islamists' 10-month grip on the towns of northern Mali, where they had brutally imposed sharia law.

Cheering, grateful Malians mobbed Hollande during his one-day visit on Saturday. He congratulated French forces and pledged that they would finish the job of restoring government control in the Sahel state.

"There are risks of terrorism so we have not finished our mission yet," Hollande said at the French ambassador's residence in Bamako.

He said France would withdraw its troops from Mali once it had regained sovereignty over all its national territory and a UN-backed African military force, which is being deployed, could take over from the French.

"We do not foresee staying indefinitely," he said, but he gave no specific time frame for the French mission.

The US and the EU are backing the French intervention in Mali, which is intended to defuse the threat of Islamist jihadists using the lawless Malian Sahara as a launching pad for international terrorism.

Timbuktu manuscripts

A "VIRTUOUS, pure, undefiled and proud city, blessed with divine favour, a healthy climate, and [commercial] activity. It is a . refuge of scholarly and righteous folk, a haunt of saints and ascetics, and a meeting place of caravans and boats."

This was Timbuktu as described by a 17th-century historian born in the city, Abdurrahman al-Sadi.

Timbuktu was past its pinnacle of 16th-century glory when he was writing, but it was still one of the wonders of the world, a centre of learning in the Sahara desert at a crossing point for caravan trade routes - slaves and gold went north, and salt went south.

The trade enriched merchants, and paid for the construction of shrines, religious schools and mosques, which attracted in turn scholars, writers and thinkers who were the intellectual and spiritual leaders of their world.

They left a legacy of manuscripts, handed down through the generations of Timbuktu's leading families, even after the trade dried up, the wealth vanished and the city decayed.

But the evidence of its flowering remained in the manuscripts, preserved in homes for centuries.

Its heritage was considered safe until last year when Timbuktu was overrun by rebel fighters of the Ansar al-Din, religious extremists who destroyed shrines built to Timbuktu's saints, considering them idolatrous.

I visited the city for the first time in 2004 and fell in love with it. I am a Muslim South African researcher, and the highlight was taking a manuscript in my hand for the first time. The thousands of records tell us a vast amount about Africa's Islamic history.

The city was founded in the 12th century, close to where the River Niger reaches its northernmost point. The founders would travel into the desert, leaving their belongings to be watched over by a slave woman called Timbuktu, after whom the city was named, according to one account.

The range of subjects covered by the manuscripts is breathtaking: Islamic law, theology, grammar, history, study of the Koran, prophetic traditions, astronomy, astrology and traditional medicine. There are also documents about commerce and correspondence between rulers.

After the building of the Ahmad Baba Centre in 1973, many manuscripts were kept there for restoration and preservation.

The centre houses up to 31000 manuscripts, of which many have been digitally recorded; about 9000 have been catalogued.

It has now emerged that more than 95% have been saved from destruction, mostly by being smuggled out of the buildings.

The events of the past 10 days have reminded the world of Timbuktu's extraordinary heritage, and given warning that its treasure trove of documents needs to be more securely preserved. - © The Sunday Telegraph

Mathee is senior researcher on the University of Cape Town Timbuktu Manuscripts Project