Hollande: African forces must restore Mali
French President Hollande says it is up to African forces to restore Mali's territorial integrity once main towns are taken in military operations.PT0M0S 620 349
Timbuktu, Mali: French-led forces have seized Mali's desert city of Timbuktu in a lightning advance north as fleeing Islamists torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts.
Residents of the ancient city on the edge of the Sahara desert erupted in joy as the French-led troops entered the town, jubilantly waving French and Malian flags after months of suffering under the Islamists' brutal rule.
Similar scenes of euphoria have greeted the troops in other key cities they have recaptured in the 18-day offensive, which has led to the Islamists fleeing their 10-month old bastions into the far northern desert hills.
A French Army vehicle at the Timbuktu airport, after French-backed Malian forces siezed the city. Photo: AFP
But the highlight of the juggernaut has been the recapture of Timbuktu, a town so etched into Western imagination as a metaphor for exotic remoteness, that many never knew really existed until its seizure by radical Islamists in April 2012 thrust it into the spotlight.
The once cosmopolitan town and a centre of Islamic learning for centuries, Timbuktu became a dusty outpost for the extremists, who forced women to wear veils, whipped and stoned those who violated their version of strict Islamic law, and destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered "idolatrous".
"The Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the town of Timbuktu. Everything is under control," a colonel in the Malian army said on condition of anonymity.
Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, who is in Bamako, confirmed the town had "fallen into the hands of the French and Malians".
As his soldiers received a rapturous welcome, French President Francois Hollande exclaimed: "We are winning in Mali."
A resident, who gave his name only as Mahamane, spoke to AFP of months of "suffering" as well as of "floggings" inflicted by the Islamists, while the marks of their occupation were visible around the city.
"Timbuktu was built on Islam and Islamic law will prevail here," read slogans written on city walls.
Residents said the occupiers had left several days ago, as French air strikes rained down on their bases across the north. A French military source said there were fears they could have dotted the city with mines, adding they were in the process of "securing" it.
However, fears soared for the city's cultural heritage when a building housing tens of thousands of manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece was set aflame.
Mayor Ousmane confirmed the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali's culture ministry.