- Timbuktu mayor: Ancient books of culture, geography, science all torched
- Ahmed Baba Institute is the £16m home to 20,000 scholarly manuscripts
- Mayor Ousmane Halle: ‘It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people’
- Cameron tells Hollande that Britain is ‘keen’ to help outs militants from Mali
- Malian and French troops enter city ‘without a shot fired’ as rebels flee
By MATT BLAKE
PUBLISHED: 08:06 EST, 28 January 2013 | UPDATED: 13:25 EST, 28 January 2013
Islamist extremists have set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts as they fled French and Malian forces closing in on Timbuktu.
Without firing a shot, 1,000 French soldiers backed by 200 Malian troops descended on the ancient desert trading post, as they tried to cut off the escape of al Qaeda-linked fighters.
But before they could be rounded up, the ragtag rebels scattered into the desert, torching homes, mosques and libraries, including the city’s £16-million Ahmed Baba Institute, home to some 20,000 ancient documents on culture, science and geography, as they left.
It comes as Prime Minister David Cameron assured French president Francois Hollande that Britain is ‘keen’ to help Paris with its military operation to oust the marauding militants.
Build by the South African government in 2009, the Ahmed Baba Institute was named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and holds thousands of priceless manuscripts in its climate-controlled, underground vaults.
Speaking by phone, city mayor Ousmane Halle said: ‘They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.’
‘It’s truly alarming that this has happened,’ he added. Mr Halle had not details of whether the rebels were still in the town, nor was he able to immediately say how much the concrete building had been damaged. He added the rebels also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.
Ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters took control of Timbuktu’s airport and roads leading to the desert town in an overnight operation.
DESTROYED: THE £16M AHMED BABA INSTITUTE’S TROVE OF HISTORY, SCIENCE AND CULTURE
But despite facing little of no resistance so far, they 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.
‘We have to be extremely careful. But in general terms, the necessary elements are in place to take control,’ French army spokesman Lieutenant Thierry Burkhard said in Paris.
Timbuktu member of parliament El Hadj Baba Haïdara told Reuters in Bamako the Islamist rebels had abandoned the city.
‘They all fled. Before their departure they destroyed some buildings, including private homes,’ he said.
The move marked the latest inroad by the two-week-old French mission to oust radical Islamists from the northern half of Mali, which they seized more than nine months ago.
French Col. Thierry Burkhard, the chief military spokesman in Paris, said on Monday that the town’s airport was taken without a shot fired.
‘There was an operation on Timbuktu last night that allowed us to control access to the town,’ he said. ‘It’s up to Malian forces to retake the town.’
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande used a phone call last night to discuss the situation in the north African state.
The RAF has already provided two heavy-lift C17 transport planes and a Sentinel surveillance aircraft to assist France’s operation, and National Security Adviser Sir Kim Darroch was today in Paris to discuss what further help may be offered.
Mr Cameron has said the UK is ready to offer logistical, intelligence and surveillance help to France, as well as troops for a proposed EU mission to train the Malian army – although he has ruled out a combat role for British personnel.
The politicians: It comes as Prime Minister David Cameron, left, assured French president Francois Hollande, right, that Britain is ‘keen’ to help Paris with its military operation to oust the marauding militants
Outlining last night’s phone call, the PM’s official spokesman told reporters: ‘The French president gave an update on the progress that French and Malian forces have been making and also thanked the Prime Minister for the UK transport assistance.
SALT, IVORY, GOLD AND SLAVES: HOW TIMBUKTU BECAME KNOWN AS THE ‘EL DORADO OF AFRICA’
‘The Prime Minister made clear that we fully support the French government’s actions, working with the Malian government at their request, to deny terrorists a safe haven in Mali.
‘The Prime Minister went on to explain that we are keen to continue to provide further assistance where we can, and depending on what French requirements there may be.
Timbuktu, which lies on an ancient caravan route, has entranced travellers for centuries.
It is some 620 miles northeast of Bamako. During their rule, the militants have systematically destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu.
A spokesman for the Al Qaeda-linked militants has said that the ancient tombs of Sufi saints were destroyed because they contravened Islam, encouraging Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.
Among the tombs they destroyed is that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955, according to the UNESCO website.
Timbuktu, long a hub of Islamic learning, is also home to some 20,000 manuscripts, some dating back as far as the 12th century.
Owners have succeeded in removing some of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to save them, while others have been carefully hidden away from the Islamists.
With its cultural treasures, Timbuktu had previously been a destination for adventurous tourists and international scholars.
The world was shocked by its capture on April 1 by Tuareg desert fighters whose separatist rebellion was later hijacked by Islamist radicals who imposed severe sharia law.
Provoking international outrage, the Islamist militants who follow a more conservative Salafist branch of Islam destroyed dozens of ancient shrines in Timbuktu sacred to moderate Sufi Moslems, condemning them as idolatrous and un-Islamic.
They also applied amputations for thieves and stoning of adulterers under sharia, while forcing women to go veiled.
On Sunday, many women among the thousands of Gao residents who came out to celebrate the rebels’ expulsion made a point of going unveiled. Other residents smoked cigarettes and played music to flout the bans previously set by the Islamist rebels.
The Timbuktu operation comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in a city east of Timbuktu, Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals that had been under the grip of radical Islamists.
The French and Malian forces so far have met little resistance from the Islamists, who seized northern Mali in the wake of a military coup in the distant capital of Bamako, in southern Mali.
‘Little by little, Mali is being liberated,’ French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France 2 television.
At Gao, more than 300 km (190 miles) east of Timbuktu, jubilant residents danced to music in the streets on Sunday to celebrate the liberation of this other ancient Niger River town from the sharia-observing rebels.
A third northern town, the Tuareg seat of Kidal, in Mali’s rugged and remote northeast, remains in the hands of the Islamist fighters, a loose alliance that groups AQIM with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter MUJWA.