Fleeing rebels torch priceless ancient library in Timbuktu
French-led forces retook control of the fabled desert town of Timbuktu yesterday amid reports that fleeing militants had destroyed a library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts.
The mayor of Timbuktu, Halle Ousmane Cissé, described as a “devastating blow” reports that Islamist fighters had torched or ransacked two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated from the 13th century. He said the retreating rebels also killed a resident who had cried out “Vive la France” as French and Malian troops approached the town.
Unesco, the Paris-based UN culture agency, said it was “horrified” by the news of destroyed manuscripts and was awaiting a full assessment.
French and Malian troops retook control of Timbuktu, one of the main urban centres that fell under Islamist control last year, without a shot being fired. A team of French paratroopers crept into the town overnight, the French military said, before being greeted by cheering residents.
The French military said the assault forces at Timbuktu were careful to avoid combat inside the city so as not to damage cultural treasures and mosques in what is considered a seat of Islamic learning.
The manuscripts were held in two separate locations: an ageing library and a new South African-funded research centre, the Ahmad Babu Institute, less than a mile away. The centre, completed in 2009 and named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar, used state-of-the-art techniques to study and conserve the thousands of crumbling scrolls.
“This is terrible news,” Mr Cissé said. “The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s.”
The Timbuktu operation followed the swift capture of Gao, another major town in northern Mali, and prompted French president François Hollande to declare that the joint forces were “winning this battle”. But with the militants appearing to have fled into the desert, the conflict may now be entering a new stage.