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He said he didn’t have further details, as communications to the city have been cut off.

“UNESCO is very concerned about the reports coming out of Timbuktu as to damage on cultural heritage there,” said Sue Williams, UNESCO chief spokesperson, on the phone from Paris.

“We’re following the situation very closely, and we are in constant contact with the Malian and French authorities on the ground.”

Timbuktu, long a hub of Islamic learning, has been home to some 20,000 manuscripts, some dating back to the 12th century. It was not immediately known how many of the irreplaceable manuscripts had been destroyed.

Owners have succeeded in removing some of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to save them, while others have been carefully hidden away from the Islamists who seized Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in the wake of a coup last March.

The Islamists, though, still maintain control of the provincial capital of Kidal further north and are believed to have a complex system of desert bases, including self-constructed caves, to which they can escape, only to launch attacks at a later date.

The AP reported last month that they have used bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts.

Timbuktu, which lies on an ancient caravan route, has entranced travelers for centuries. During their rule on Timbuktu, the militants systematically destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites.

A spokesman for the al-Qaeda-linked militants has said that the ancient tombs of Sufi saints were destroyed because they contravened Islam, encouraging Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.

Among the tombs they destroyed is that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955, according to the UNESCO website.

The destruction recalls tactics used by the Taliban in 2001 when they dynamited a pair of giant Buddhas carved into a mountain in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province. Around the same time, the Taliban also rampaged through the national museum, smashing any art depicting the human form, considered idolatrous under their hard-line interpretation of Islam. In all, they destroyed about 2,500 statues.

The al-Qaeda-linked militants forced women to wear veils or else face public whippings, and people also were lashed for possessing cigarettes. A couple accused of adultery was stoned to death in Kidal, and one man convicted of murder was executed in public in Timbuktu.

The harsh conditions forced many of the town’s 50,000 residents to flee south.

Nana Toure, a native of Timbuktu now living in the capital, said she is delighted to hear that the French have arrived, but she worried about how long the Malian soldiers could hold the town without help.

“Frankly, if they secure the city today, I am ready to return immediately to Timbuktu,” she said. “French troops must not leave us alone then because those (Islamists) who fled may come back and cause problem to us. French troops have to stay a bit to stabilize the place.”

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