French-led operation looks north after Timbuktu

6 min

After Monday's liberation of Timbuktu, the French-led Operation Serval to retake northern Mali from Islamist militants must now turn its focus to Kidal in the north of the country, a city that Tuareg rebels say they now control.


French and Malian troops were patrolling a peaceful Timbuktu on Tuesday after taking the city without resistance and getting a hero’s welcome from residents after 10 months’ occupation by Islamist militants.

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.

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)

“Not one shot was 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.

“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.

Despite the lack of resistance from Islamists, there were reports on Tuesday that black Malians in Timbuktu were looting ‘Arab’ shops and stores, where some weapons had been found. According to official sources, the looting had been stopped by midday.

‘We are winning’

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.

Click on map to enlarge

Speaking at a press conference on Monday afternoon, Hollande said: “We are winning this battle.”

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.

With the recapture of Timbuktu and of the eastern city of Gao two days earlier, only one Islamist stronghold remains to be retaken: the town of Kidal in the desert hills of the far north, 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.

Tuareg rebels, formerly allied with the Islamists, claimed on Monday they had captured the city.

Asked if French troops would press on to try to force the Islamists out of the mountainous north of the country, French President François Hollande said: "We know that this is the most difficult part because the terrorists are hidden there and can still carry out extremely dangerous operations, for neighbouring countries and Mali.”

“It is time for the Africans to take over,” he added.

Historic library ‘torched’

hile French and Malian troops met with no resistance in Timbuktu, 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 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 digitising 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.

Money starts to flow in

Following the success of the French-led Operation Serval to retake the north of the country, international aid was beginning to flow into the region.

On Tuesday, Japan said it would give an extra $120 million to help stabilise the semi-arid Sahel region which straddles Mali, Niger and Algeria, while the International Monetary Fund agreed to provide an $18.4 million emergency loan to Mali.

Nearly 8,000 African troops from Chad and the West African bloc ECOWAS are expected to take over from the French, but their deployment has been slow, with just 2,700 currently stationed in Mali and Niger.

The African-led force will require a budget of $460 million (340 million euros), the African Union said on the final day of its summit in Addis Ababa on Monday, promising to contribute $50 million for the mission.

On Tuesday, Britain announced that it would send some 240 troops to Mali and surrounding countries to help train local troops.



Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning