A Malian family’s taxi is searched at a checkpoint on the Gao road outside Sevare, 620km north of capital Bamako. (AP)
Jan. 28: The music returned to the largest city of Mali yesterday but a heavy cloud hung over a library housing priceless manuscripts of the ancient city of Timbuktu.
Al Qaida-linked fighters fleeing French and Malian troops advancing on Timbuktu, a protected World Heritage Site, are suspected to have set fire to the library containing thousands of manuscripts collected over centuries.
“The rebels set fire to the newly constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans... this happened four days ago,” mayor Halle Ousmane told Reuters by telephone from the Mali capital, Bamako.
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 grim news came as residents of northern Mali’s largest city, Gao, poured out of their homes to celebrate the expulsion of Islamist fighters who had held their town for months, playing the music that had been forbidden under the militants’ harsh interpretation of Islamic rule and dancing in the streets.
“Everyone is in the streets,” a Gao resident, Ibrahim Touré, said in a telephone interview. “It is like a party. There is music. There are drums. It’s freedom.”
If it can be held, the capture of Gao will be the biggest strategic victory in the battle to retake northern Mali, which began this month when French forces entered the fight to blunt a sudden militant push towards Bamako.
Conflicting accounts emerged about the extent of damage the manuscripts may have suffered. Some owners had succeeded in removing some of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to save them, while others have been carefully hidden away from the Islamists.
Ousmane, who was depending on information passed on by his chief of communications who had travelled south from the city a day ago, was not able to immediately say how much the building had been damaged.
But AP quoted Ousmane as saying: “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”
French and Malian troops today sealed off Timbuktu. Without a shot being fired to stop them, 1,000 French soldiers including paratroopers and 200 Malian troops seized the airport and surrounded the city.
Secular Malian Tuareg MNLA rebels said they were now in control of the northern town of Kidal after militant fighters abandoned it. “Now it is us who are in control,” Col Mohamed Ag Najim, the MNLA’s military commander, told Reuters by satellite phone.
The Timbuktu mayor said the rebels, who had occupied the fabled trading town since a Tuareg-led rebellion captured it in April last year from government forces, also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.
Fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, which groups AQIM with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter MUJWA, had also destroyed ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufis, provoking international outrage.
The rebels have pulled back northwards to avoid relentless French airstrikes that have destroyed their bases, vehicles and weapons.
French military support to its former colony has enabled Mali’s poorly equipped army to retake small and large towns in recent days. But analysts say the next phase of the war — to defeat the rebels in the desert — would take longer and be more difficult.
In Gao, people who had been under occupation for nearly a year flooded the streets in jubilation, weeping and shouting to welcome the Malian and French troops, residents said.
Gao is the most populous city in Mali’s north, and it endured months of repression under fighters aligned with al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The city’s residents were subject to strict rules and harsh punishment, including amputations for suspected thieves and public beatings or whippings for perceived violations of Islamic law.
Fatou Cissé, a Gao resident reached by telephone, said crowds were chanting “Vive la France”! and singing the Malian national anthem. “I was out there with them,” said Cissé, who said she was wearing bright wax-print fabric with short sleeves, the kind of clothing that was banned when the city was under militant control.
For many residents of towns under Islamist control, it was the little things about their previous lives that they missed most. “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends,” said Amadou Kané, a 26-year-old history student from Niafounké.