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Timbuktu treasures destroyed by Islamists as French move in
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By Mail Foreign Service
PUBLISHED: 08:06 EST, 28 January 2013 | UPDATED: 09:22 EST, 28 January 2013
Islamist extremists have set fire to a library containing historic manuscripts as they fled French and Malian forces closing in on Timbuktu.
Without a shot being fired, 1,000 French soldiers including paratroopers and 200 Malian troops descended on the centuries-old Niger River city, as they tried to block the escape of al Qaeda-allied fighters.
But before they could be rounded up, the ragtag rebels scattered in fear into the surrounding desert, torching many priceless ancient books on culture, science and geography as they left.
It comes as Prime Minister David Cameron assured French president Francois Hollande that Britain is 'keen' to help Paris with its military operation to oust the marauding militants.
Battle ready: Malian soldiers arrive at Gao airport, north of Mali as they joined French forces over the weekend in a push toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu
Desecrated: But as the soldiers reached Timbuktu to oust the Islamist extremists, the rebels destroyed many priceless ancient books on culture, science and geography, the town's mayor Ousmane Halle said
Fight back: The Timbuktu operation comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in a city east of Timbuktu, Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals that had been under the grip of radical Islamists
The Ahmed Baba Institute, one of several libraries and collections in the city containing fragile ancient documents dating back to the 13th century, is named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and houses more than 20,000 scholarly manuscripts. Some were stored in underground vaults.
Speaking by phone, Mr 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.'
'It's truly alarming that this has happened,' he added. Mr Halle had not details of whether the rebels were still in the town.
Ousmane was not able to immediately say how much the concrete building had been damaged. He added the rebels also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.
Tough job: But despite facing little of no resistance so far, French and Malian troops face a tough job of combing through the labyrinth of ancient mosques, monuments and mud-brick homes between alleys to flush out any hiding Islamist fighters
The politicians: It comes as Prime Minister David Cameron, left, assured French president Francois Hollande, right, that Britain is 'keen' to help Paris with its military operation to oust the marauding militants
Extremist fighters: Fighters of the Ansar Dine Islamist group standing guard at Kidal airport, northern Mali. French air strikes destroyed the home of the leader of an Al-Qaeda-linked group in northern Mali as French-led forces advanced yesterday
Ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters took control of Timbuktu's airport and roads leading to the desert town in an overnight operation.
But despite facing little of no resistance so far, they face a tough job of combing through the labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes between alleys to flush out any hiding Islamist fighters.
DESTROYED: THE AHMED BABA INSTITUTE'S £16M TREASURE TROVE OF AFRICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE
The Ahmed Baba Institute is one of several libraries and collections in the city containing fragile ancient documents dating back to the 13th century.
It is named after a
Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and houses more than
20,000 scholarly manuscripts.
The institute moved to a new, state-of-the-art home in the centre of Timbuktu in 2009, built by the South African government at a cost of £16.5 million.
Its underground, climate-controlled storage rooms were home to some 30,000 priceless manuscripts documenting centuries of African culture, science, geography and more.
Most of the manuscripts are in Arabic script, but contain many local languages, and provide unique insights into Timbuktu's emergence as a trading post, and by the 1500s as a famous university town, full of students and scribes.
'We have to be extremely careful. But in general terms, the necessary elements are in place to take control,' French army spokesman Lieutenant Thierry Burkhard said in Paris.
Timbuktu member of parliament El Hadj Baba Haïdara told Reuters in Bamako the Islamist rebels had abandoned the city.
'They all fled. Before their departure they destroyed some buildings, including private homes,' he said.
The move marked the latest inroad by
the two-week-old French mission to oust radical Islamists from the
northern half of Mali, which they seized more than nine months ago.
French Col. Thierry Burkhard, the chief military spokesman in Paris, said on Monday that the town's airport was taken without a shot fired.
'There was an operation on Timbuktu last night that allowed us to control access to the town,' he said. 'It's up to Malian forces to retake the town.'
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande used a phone call last night to discuss the situation in the north African state.
The RAF has already provided two heavy-lift C17 transport planes and a Sentinel surveillance aircraft to assist France's operation, and National Security Adviser Sir Kim Darroch was today in Paris to discuss what further help may be offered.
Mr Cameron has said the UK is ready to offer logistical, intelligence and surveillance help to France, as well as troops for a proposed EU mission to train the Malian army - although he has ruled out a combat role for British personnel.
Fierce: Chadian soldiers secure Gao airport on Saturday. When they got to Timbuktu, the Islamist rebels fled, torching homes
Chad support fighter: But despite facing little of no resistance so far, they face a tough job of combing through the labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes between alleys to flush out any hiding Islamist fighters
Outlining last night's phone call, the PM's official spokesman told reporters: 'The French president gave an update on the progress that French and Malian forces have been making and also thanked the Prime Minister for the UK transport assistance.
'The Prime Minister made clear that we fully support the French government's actions, working with the Malian government at their request, to deny terrorists a safe haven in Mali.
'The Prime Minister went on to explain that we are keen to continue to provide further assistance where we can, and depending on what French requirements there may be.
Assault: Ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters took control of Timbuktu's airport and roads leading to the desert town in an overnight operation
Trundle on: A French military convoy moves through central Mali on their way to Timbuktu. The move marked the latest inroad by the two-week-old French mission to oust radical Islamists from the northern half of Mali, which they seized more than nine months ago
The Timbuktu operation comes a day after the French announced they had seized the airport and a key bridge in a city east of Timbuktu, Gao, one of the other northern provincial capitals that had been under the grip of radical Islamists.
The French and Malian forces so far have met little resistance from the Islamists, who seized northern Mali in the wake of a military coup in the distant capital of Bamako, in southern Mali.
Timbuktu, which lies on an ancient caravan route, has entranced travellers for centuries.
It is some 620 miles northeast of Bamako. During their rule, the militants have systematically destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu.
No resistance: Chad soldiers around a fire at Goa airport. The French and Malian forces so far have met little resistance from the Islamists, who seized northern Mali in the wake of a military coup in the distant capital of Bamako, in southern Mali
A spokesman for the Al Qaeda-linked militants has said that the ancient tombs of Sufi saints were destroyed because they contravened Islam, encouraging Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.
Among the tombs they destroyed is that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955, according to the UNESCO website.
Timbuktu, long a hub of Islamic learning, is also home to some 20,000 manuscripts, some dating back as far as the 12th century.
Owners have succeeded in removing some of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to save them, while others have been carefully hidden away from the Islamists.