French and Malian troops retake Timbuktu airport
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Ground troops from the French and Malian armies surrounded Timbuktu Monday after seizing the northern Malian city's airport. As troops prepare to retake the historic desert city, there were fears the city’s heritage sites could be in peril.
French and Malian troops surrounded the fabled northern Malian city of Timbuktu Monday after taking the city’s airport amid reports that fleeing Islamist militants had torched a library containing priceless ancient manuscripts.
Reporting from the airport where he is embedded with French forces early Monday, FRANCE 24 correspondent Matthieu Mabin said “not one shot had been fired”. A contingent of about 800 French and Malian troops had secured the airport, according to Mabin. Five planes had also drooped 250 French parachutists into Timbuktu to secure the north of the city in France’s first operational paratroop drop in 35 years.
“Although there was no resistance, one risk is isolated attacks by suicide bombers or from improvised explosive devices (IEDs),” said Mabin. “The operation is now surrounding Timbuktu.”
Historic library ‘torched’
But while French and Malian troops met with no resistance at the airport, there were reports of Islamists torching the Ahmad Baba Institute, a state library partly financed by the South African government, which houses tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts.
“The rebels set fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... this happened four days ago,” Timbuktu mayor Halle Ousmane told Reuters by telephone from the Malian capital of Bamako.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Shamil Jeppie, director of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at Cape Town University, said he had read the reports, but he could not confirm them since he was unable to get through to his colleagues in Timbuktu on the phone.
“The Ahmed Baba library now has two locations,” said Jeppie, including a new building with state-of-the art digitizing equipment, and the old building situated next to the famous Sankore Mosque.
“I’m a bit confused when they say the building – or part of the building - was destroyed because I don’t know which of the two locations they’re talking about,” said Jeppie.
An oasis city on the ancient desert caravan routes, Timbuktu was an important centre of learning in the medieval ages and is home to tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts as well as UNESCO world heritage sites.
Former al Qaeda bastion Gao falls over the weekend
Monday’s advance toward Timbuktu cames a day after French and Malian soldiers seized the town of Gao, east of Timbuktu -- the biggest victory so far in their operation against the militants, who have controlled the north for 10 months.
French warplanes had carried out some 20 air strikes Saturday and Sunday in the Gao and Timbuktu regions, the ministry statement added.
“The French air force has laid the groundwork for an all-out offensive, using Dassault Mirage 2000s and Rafale fighter jets to destroy rebel points in the vast desert around the city,” Mabin reported. “So far, the troops have experienced no form of counter-attack on the ground.”
France launched its campaign on January 11 after Islamists captured a central town and threatened to advance on the capital, Bamako, sparking fears that the whole country could become a haven for terror groups.
After successfully beating the rebels back from central Mali, French special forces led the assault on Gao, a former bastion of the Al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Unification and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which fell on January 26.
MUJAO is one of the Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali in April last year in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup.
The Islamists had last year joined forces with an alliance of ethnic-Tuareg rebels seeking an independent homeland in the north, first taking Kidal, then Gao and Timbuktu.
They quickly sidelined the Tuaregs, imposing a harsh version of Islamic sharia law which saw offenders flogged, stoned or executed.
Residents ‘hysterical’ at sight of troops
“When we travel through liberated villages, the residents become almost hysterical at the sight of the French and Malian tanks,” Mabin said on Sunday. “They rush out of their homes with the national flag shouting “Mali!” These people are literally being liberated after experiencing the terror of sharia law.
“The accounts we’ve heard are terrible: suspected thieves having their hands cut off; women forced to wear the veil; men banned from wearing long trousers.
“Residents tell us that the rebels flee very quickly [when the French and Malian forces arrive], leaving behind weapons and vehicles. They dress like civilians so as not to stand out and then try to head for the border with Mauritania.”