French and Malian troops were yesterday restoring government control over the fabled Saharan trading town of Timbuktu, the latest gain in a fast-moving French-led offensive against Islamist fighters occupying northern Mali.
The rebels have pulled back northwards to avoid relentless French air strikes that have destroyed their bases, vehicles and weapons, allowing French and Malian troops to advance rapidly with air support and armored vehicles.
A Malian military source said the French and Malian forces reached “the gates of Timbuktu” late on Saturday without meeting resistance from the Islamist insurgents who had held the town since last year.
The advancing troops were working on securing the town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and labyrinth of ancient mosques, monuments and mud-brick homes, ready to flush out any Islamist fighters who might still be hiding among the population.
“Timbuktu is delicate, you can’t just go in like that,” the source, who asked not to be named, said.
On Saturday, the French-Malian offensive recaptured Gao, which along with Timbuktu was one of three major northern towns occupied last year by Tuareg and Islamist rebels who included fighters from al-Qaeda’s North Africa wing AQIM.
The third town, Kidal, remains in rebel hands.
The US and Europe are backing the UN-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of jihadists using the West African state’s inhospitable Sahara desert as a launching pad for international attacks.
One Timbuktu resident now outside the town said a friend inside had sent him SMS messages saying he had seen government troops on the streets, but gave no more details.
Fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, which groups AQIM with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter MUJWA, had destroyed ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims in Timbuktu, provoking international outrage.
They had also imposed severe shariah, Islamic law, including amputations for thieves and stoning of adulterers.