SEVARE, Mali – Backed by French helicopters and paratroopers, Malian soldiers entered the fabled city of Timbuktu on Monday after al-Qaida-linked militants who ruled the outpost by fear for nearly 10 months fled into the desert, having first set fire to a library that held thousands of manuscripts dating to the Middle Ages.
French Col. Thierry Burkhard, chief military spokesman in Paris, said there had been no combat with the Islamists but that the French and Malian forces did not yet control the town.
Still, there was celebration among the thousands of Timbuktu residents who fled the city rather than live under strict Islamic rule and the dire poverty that worsened after the tourist industry was destroyed.
“In the heart of people from northern Mali, it’s a relief — freedom finally,” said Cheick Sormoye, a Timbuktu resident who fled to Bamako, the capital.
Timbuktu, a city of mud-walled buildings and 50,000 people, was for centuries a seat of Islamic learning and a major trading center along the North African caravan routes that carried slaves, gold and salt. In Europe, legend had it that it was a city of gold. Today, its name is synonymous to many with the ends of the earth.
It has been home to some 20,000 irreplaceable manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century. It was not immediately known how many were destroyed in the blaze that was set in recent days in an act of vengeance by the Islamists before they withdrew.
Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called the arson a “desecration to humanity.”
“These manuscripts are irreplaceable. They have the wisdom of the ages and it’s the most important find since the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said.
The militants seized Timbuktu last April and began imposing a strict Islamic version of Shariah, or religious law, across northern Mali, carrying out amputations and public executions. Women could be whipped for going out in public without wearing veils, while men could be lashed for having cigarettes.
Just over two weeks after the French began their military intervention in Mali, French and Malian forces arrived in Timbuktu overnight.
But the French have said Mali’s military must finish the job of securing Timbuktu. And the Malians have generally fared poorly in combat, often retreating in panic in the face of well-armed, battle-hardened Islamists.
The mayor said the Islamists burned his office as well as the Ahmed Baba institute, a library rich in historical documents.
“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” Mayor Ousmane Halle said. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”
Some manuscripts had been removed from Timbuktu or hidden away for safekeeping from the Islamists.