French forces welcomed to Timbuktu
French-led forces seized control of the desert town of Timbuktu yesterday, meeting no resistance as they continued their advance into territory occupied since last year by Islamist militants.
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 before entering yesterday afternoon.
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. In both places, cheering crowds turned out to welcome the troops as they arrived.
French president François Hollande declared that the joint forces were “winning this battle” but, with militants appearing to have fled into the desert, a long counter-insurgency effort has become more likely.
A third town in Mali’s vast desert north, Kidal, is the only major urban centre yet to be retaken by the French-led troops. Yesterday the largely secular Malian Tuareg group, the MNLA, said it had taken charge in Kidal after Islamist fighters abandoned it.
Manuscripts on fire
The French military 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.
However, 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. He was not able to say how much the concrete building had been damaged.
Mr Ousmane also said he had been informed that Islamists had “burnt alive” a resident who had cried out “Vive la France”.
In Paris, a spokesman for Unesco, the UN culture agency, said it was “horrified” by the news of the destroyed manuscripts, but was awaiting a full assessment of the damage.
Mali descended into turmoil last March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize more than half the country. Islamist militias, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), hijacked the revolt and took control of northern Mali – a vast area roughly the size of Spain.
Mr Hollande, who ordered the intervention two weeks ago when the militants launched a surprise southward advance, said the French had no intention of remaining in Mali and hoped to hand over the operation to an African-led force.
“Our duty is to do what we can so as to enable African forces to bring Mali long-term stability,” he said.
African troops for a UN-backed continental intervention force, expected to number 7,700, are being flown into the country despite delays due to logistical problems.
“Little by little, Mali is being liberated,” French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told France 2 television.
But he cautioned that armed fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali could reappear. “The terrorist groups are carrying out a strategy of evasion, and some of them could return in the north,” he said.