SEVARE, Mali (AP) — Malian soldiers entered the city of Timbuktu on Monday after al-Qaeda-linked militants, having set ablaze a library that held thousands of ancient manuscripts, fled into the desert.
French Col. Thierry Burkhard, the chief military spokesman in Paris, said that there had been no combat with the Islamists who have ruled Timbuktu for nearly 10 months, but that the forces did not yet control the town as of Monday afternoon.
Col. Burkhard said French paratroopers landed north of the city as ground forces headed up from the south.
“The helicopters have been decisive,” he said, describing how they aided the ground forces who came from the south as French paratroopers landed north of the city.
News of their arrival came just hours after Timbuktu’s mayor confirmed that the fleeing Islamists had in earlier days torched ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, long revered as a center of Islamic learning.
The militants occupied Timbuktu for almost 10 months, imposing the strict Islamic version of Shariah, or religious law, across northern Mali while carrying out amputations and public executions.
The French said Mali’s weak military must finish the job of securing Timbuktu, but they generally have fared poorly in combat, often retreating in panic in the face of well-armed and battle-hardened Islamists.
The French-led military operation against the Islamists, who seized the northern half of Mali last year, began 17 days ago when the insurgents encroached further toward the south.
The operation has scored several successes, but hard questions remain about how the Mali government will hold the cities that have been wrested from the Islamists, and whether there is the will and the ability to chase them into the Sahara, which is home to many of these desert fighters.
On Saturday, French forces secured key installations in the northeastern town of Gao. Then, overnight Sunday, troops secured the Timbuktu airport without firing a shot.
Ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters took control of Timbuktu’s airport and the roads leading to the town in an overnight operation, a French military official said Monday.
The mayor of Timbuktu said Monday that the Islamists had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute — a library rich with historical documents — in an act of retaliation before they fled late last week from the city of mud-walled buildings.
“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” Mayor Ousmane Halle told The Associated Press by telephone from Bamako. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”