French-led troops surrounded Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu yesterday after seizing its airport in a lightning advance against Islamist insurgents who have been driven from key northern strongholds.
French paratroopers swooped in to block any fleeing Islamists while ground troops coming from the south seized the airport in the ancient city, which has been one of the bastions of the extremists controlling the north for 10 months.
“We control the airport at Timbuktu,” a senior officer with the Malian army said. “We did not encounter any resistance.”
French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said the troops, backed up by helicopters, had seized control of the so-called Niger Loop —- the area along the curve of the Niger River flowing between Timbuktu and Gao — in less than 48 hours.
A fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu was for centuries a key center of Islamic learning and has become a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.
The extremists who seized the town forced women to wear veils, whipped and stoned those who violated their version of strict Islamic law, and destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.
“We will liberate Timbuktu very soon,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France 2 television channel. “Little by little, Mali is being freed.”
“This has been a very complicated operation, but until now very well managed,” he said.
A source in a reconnaissance team which first reached Timbuktu on Sunday said Malian and French troops had not yet entered the city.
“We are in town, but we are not many. But the Islamists caused damages before leaving. They burned houses, and manuscripts. They beat people who were showing their joy,” the source said.
Islamist fighters set fire to a South African-funded library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts, Timbuktu’s mayor said yesterday.
“The rebels sit fire to the newly constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... this happened four days ago,” Halle Ousmane said by telephone from the Malian capital Bamako.
He said he had received the information from his chief of communications who had traveled south from the city a day ago.
Ousmane was not able to immediately say how much the building had been damaged.
The mayor said rebels also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.
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.
The advance into Timbuktu known as “the City of 333 Saints,” which lies 1,000km north of Bamako, comes a day after French and Malian soldiers seized athe eastern town of Gao.
The French defense ministry said a French armored battalion, Malian troops and soldiers from Niger and Chad were in control of Gao after fighting on Saturday in which “several terrorist groups were destroyed or chased to the north.”
French warplanes carried out about 20 air strikes on Saturday and Sunday in the Gao and Timbuktu regions, the ministry statement added.
Gao is the biggest of six towns seized by French and Malian troops since they launched their offensive on Jan. 11.
The largest town yet to be recaptured is Kidal further north near the Algerian border which was the first to be seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists last year.