Last updated: January 28, 2013 9:52 pm

Fears for treasures as Timbuktu retaken

Malian soldiers lining up to embark on French army transport bound for Goa on January 26 2013 in Sevare©AFP

French and Malian troops secured control of the fabled town of Timbuktu in northern Mali on Monday as retreating Islamist rebels were reported to have set fire to a library housing priceless manuscripts dating as far back as 1204.

Hundreds of French and Malian soldiers had converged on the city, lying on the edge of the Sahara and one of three main bases of the al-Qaeda-linked militants. A second stronghold, Gao, fell to the local army and France on Saturday, as the aerial bombardment caused the rebels to flee. Their northern base at Kidal was being bombed.

Malian soldiers aided by French paratroopers and aircraft took control of Timbuktu’s airport and approach roads before they entered the town itself. However, there were several reports of rebels setting fire to buildings as they retreated, including the library.

The operation to retake Timbuktu was always going to be the most sensitive because of its cultural treasures. Nearly 1,000 years old, the city contains tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, among the oldest examples of written history in sub-Saharan Africa, which offer an insight into a golden age of west African scholarship.

The South African government has spent millions of dollars on a modern library to preserve the fragile manuscripts, which for centuries were kept in caves, trunks or boxes hidden beneath the sand. They cover topics ranging from astronomy to Islamic law.

Phone communication with the city is cut but Timbuktu’s mayor, Ousman Halle, said on Monday that his chief of communications had returned from the town with bad news. “The rebels set fire to the newly constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans . . . this happened four days ago,” Mr Halle told Reuters by telephone from the capital, Bamako. The report could not be independently confirmed and it is not known how much of the library was damaged.

France promised a short war; the Islamist rebels occupying northern Mali vowed it would be long. Two and half weeks into the conflict, France is faring the better of the two sides. Together with Mali’s army, its ground and air forces have accomplished their initial aim of stopping the militants advancing south towards Bamako. The second goal of damaging the rebels’ armoury and vehicles and taking their strongholds appears within reach.

Two weeks of air strikes on rebel positions and equipment have taken their toll. The frontline towns of Diabaly and Konna are littered with burnt wrecks of rebel pick-up trucks and abandoned ammunition. But it is far from mission accomplished.

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The combined fighting force of the three Islamist groups was thought to number in the low thousands but there have been no reports of heavy casualties. The rebel tactic since the first few days of French air strikes, which began on January 11, appears to one of strategic retreat.

“It’s been a success for France, but an easy, predictable success,” said Mathieu Guidere, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toulouse.

He compared the situation to that in Afghanistan in 2001, when US aircraft bombed Taliban and al-Qaeda targets for weeks, sending their militants fleeing.

“I think the Islamists in Mali have learnt the lessons from there: that it’s useless to fight against an enemy who controls the air. Let them bomb, and wait for them to come and settle in the cities before you begin the war. It’s a tactical decision.”

Some of the rebels are thought to have moved into the mountainous regions north of Kidal, where the remoteness and harsh terrain offers some sanctuary. Others, especially the Tuaregs of Ansar Dine, may have crossed into neighbouring countries, which also have Tuareg populations.

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