French and Malian troops retook control of Timbuktu, a Unesco World Heritage site, yesterday after Islamist rebel occupiers fled the ancient Sahara trading town and torched several buildings, including a priceless manuscript library.
The US and EU are backing a French-led intervention in Mali aimed at removing the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the west African state’s inhospitable desert north as a springboard for international attacks.
The recovery of Timbuktu followed the swift capture by French and Malian forces at the weekend of Gao, another major town in Mali’s north that had also been occupied by the alliance of Islamist militant groups since last year.
The two-week-old mission by France in its former Sahel colony, at the request of Mali’s government but also with wide international support, has driven the Islamist rebels northwards out of towns into the desert and mountains.
Without a shot being fired, 1,000 French soldiers and paratroopers and 200 Malian troops seized Timbuktu airport and surrounded the town on the banks of the Niger River, looking to block the escape of al Qaeda-allied insurgents.
In both Timbuktu and Gao, cheering crowds turned out to welcome the French and Malian troops.
A third town in Mali’s vast desert north, Kidal, had remained in Islamist militant hands. But the secular Malian Tuareg MNLA rebels said yesterday they had taken charge in Kidal after Islamist fighters abandoned it.
A Bamako-based diplomat confirmed the MNLA takeover of Kidal, saying the Tuaregs were likely to try to press long-standing demands for autonomy for their northern region.
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 and mosques and religious shrines in what is considered a seat of Islamic learning.
But Timbuktu mayor Ousmane Halle reported that departing Islamist gunmen had set ablaze a South African-funded library in the city containing thousands of invaluable manuscripts.
Ousmane said the rebels also set fire to his office and the home of a member of parliament.
Unesco spokesman Roni Amelan said the UN cultural agency was “horrified” by the news of the fire.
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