Euphoria as French, Malian troops take historic Timbuktu

5 min

Ground troops from the French and Malian armies took control of Timbuktu on Monday just hours after seizing the airport, FRANCE 24’s Matthieu Mabin reports from the desert city. Mabin said the advance met little resistance from Islamist fighters.


French and Malian troops met no resistance as they seized the fabled northern Malian city of Timbuktu Monday just hours after taking the city’s airport, FRANCE 24 has learned.

Reporting from Timbuktu, FRANCE 24 correspondent Matthieu Mabin said Malian soldiers, followed by French troops, entered the old centre of the city on Monday afternoon.

“We can now say that the city of Timbuktu is free from the Islamist groups who were controlling the city for the past 10 months,” said Mabin, who has been embedded with the French military.

There were scenes of jubilation as the troops rolled into the city centre, according to Mabin. “Everybody is outside – men, women and children – they’re on the streets proclaiming their joy, shouting, ‘God save Mali, God save France, God save [French President] François Hollande’. We can hear this even from the roof where I’m standing now,” said Mabin.

Paratroopers from the Second Foreign Parachute Regiment are dropped into Timbuktu in this photograph captured by a French Harfang drone. (Photo: EMA / armée de l'Air – French Air Force)
Paratroopers from the Second Foreign Parachute Regiment are dropped into Timbuktu in this photograph captured by a French Harfang drone. (Photo: EMA / armée de l'Air – French Air Force)

The fall of Timbuktu came more than two weeks after Hollande responded to a call for urgent military assistance by the Malian government after militants seized a strategic central Malian town earlier this month.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday afternoon, Hollande said, “We are winning this battle” in Mali. But he warned that there was still a threat of terrorist attacks by Islamist militants who have fled the major cities, and that the task of maintaining order rested with African troops. “It's up to the Africans to permit Mali to restore its territorial integrity," said Hollande.

Malian and French troops entered central Timbuktu Monday after taking the airport, situated on the northern outskirts of the city, where they encountered no resistance. “Not one shot had been fired,” said Mabin. During the operation, five planes had also dropped 250 French parachutists into Timbuktu to secure the north of the city in France’s first operational paratroop drop in 35 years.

Historic library ‘torched’

But while French and Malian troops met with no resistance, 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 came a day after troops seized Gao, northern Mali’s biggest city, after Islamists militants fled the city.

Click on map to enlarge

France launched its campaign on January 11 after Islamists captured the central Malian town of Konna 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.

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