TIMBUKTU, MALI – French-led forces received a hero’s welcome as they entered Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu but not before fleeing Islamists torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts.
Residents of the ancient city on the edge of the Sahara desert erupted in joy as French and Malian troops entered Monday as part of their lightning military advance north.
They waved French and Malian flags and shouted “Mali, Mali, Mali,” after months under the Islamists’ brutal rule.
As the soldiers received a thunderous welcome, French President Francois Hollande declared in Paris: “We are winning in Mali.” And by “we,” he added, he meant the Malian Army, the Africans supported by the French.
“There were no shots fired, no blood split. Not even passive resistance with traps,” said Col. Frederic Gout, head of French helicopter operations in the area.
Residents said many of the Islamist occupiers had left several days ago as French airstrikes rained down on their bases across the north.
Another French military source, however, spoke of fears the Islamists could have dotted the city with mines and said they were in the process of “securing” it.
Even as the Franco-Malian force approached the city, however, Malian security and military sources reported that a building housing tens of thousands of manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece had been set on fire.
Timbuktu Mayor Halley Ousmane, speaking from the capital, Bamako, confirmed reports of the militants had set a fire at the Ahmed Baba Center for Documentation and Research, denouncing what he called a crime against culture.
The center housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali’s Culture Ministry.
The center was set up in 1973, and in 2009 a new building was opened following an agreement with South Africa to protect the manuscripts as African heritage.
Timbuktu was for centuries a cosmopolitan city and a center of Islamic learning.
Radical Islamists captured the city in April 2012 and held it and several other northern cities for 10 months. They managed to seize the north of the country in the chaos that followed a military coup last March.
Under the Islamists, women in Timbuktu were forced to wear veils, and those judged to have violated their strict version of Islamic law were whipped and stoned.
The militants also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.
On Monday however, residents of the city were celebrating their newfound freedom.
Lahlia Garba, a woman in her fifties, expressed her relief that the hardline Islamists had been forced out.
“I had to wear a burqa, gloves and cover everything,” she said.
Hama Cisse, another Timbuktu resident, exclaimed: “We are independent again! We were held hostage for 10 months but it seemed like 10 years.”