Islamic forces burn ancient Timbuktu library
French and Malian military forces have closed in on the city of Timbuktu after armed Islamist extremists fled into the desert leaving ablaze a library holding ancient manuscripts.
Its mayor said the Islamists had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba institute – a library rich with historical documents – in an act of retaliation before they left the city of mud-walled buildings.
“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” Ousmane Halle said. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”
Timbuktu, long a hub of Islamic learning, has been home to 20,000 manuscripts, some dating back as far as the 12th century. It was not immediately known how many of the priceless manuscripts had been destroyed.
Owners have succeeded in removing some from Timbuktu to save them, while others have been hidden away from the Islamists who seized Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in the wake of a coup last March.
They imposed the strict Islamic version of Shariah, or religious law, across northern Mali while carrying out amputations and public executions.
“In the heart of people from northern Mali, it’s a relief – freedom finally,” said Cheick Sormoye, a Timbuktu resident who fled to the capital, Bamako.
The French said Mali’s weak military must finish the job of securing Timbuktu. But they have generally fared poorly in combat, often retreating in panic in the face of well-armed and battle-hardened Islamists.
The French-led military operation against the Islamists, who seized the northern half of Mali last year, began 17 days ago when the insurgents encroached further toward the south.
It has scored several successes, but hard questions remain about how the Mali Government will hold the cities that have been wrested from the Islamists, and whether there is the will and the ability to chase them into the Sahara, which is home to many of these desert fighters.
On Saturday French forces secured key installations in the northeastern town of Gao. Then overnight Sunday troops secured the Timbuktu airport without firing a shot.
Ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters took control of Timbuktu’s airport and the roads leading to the town in an overnight operation.