SEVARE: Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, the Saharan town's mayor said, an act he described as a ''devastating blow'' to world heritage.
On Saturday fighters allied to al-Qaeda torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century, Halle Ousmane Cisse said. They also burned down the town hall, governor's office and an MP's house, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.
French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town's airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's rich mediaeval history.
''It's true. They have burned the manuscripts,'' Mr Cisse said from Mali's capital, Bamako.
''This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali's heritage but the world's heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north.''
The manuscripts were held in two places: an ageing library and a new South African-funded research centre, the Ahmad Babu Institute, about a kilometre away. Completed in 2009 and named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar, the centre used state-of-the-art techniques to study and conserve the crumbling scrolls.
Both buildings were burned down, the mayor said, citing information from someone who had just left the town. Asked whether any of the manuscripts might have survived, Mr Cisse replied: ''I don't know.''
The manuscripts had survived for centuries hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries.
The vast majority were in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew.
They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights. The oldest one dated from 1204.
Seydou Traore, who has worked at the Ahmed Baba Institute since 2003, and fled shortly before the rebels arrived, said the manuscripts were important because they exploded the myth that ''black Africa'' had only an oral history.
''You just need to look at the manuscripts to realise how wrong this is.''
Guardian News & Media