French troops are inside the historic city of Timbuktu in Mali after advancing north into an area held by Islamist militants.
As they fled, the insurgents apparently set fire to a library that is home to thousands of ancient manuscripts, an act described by the city’s mayor as a “devastating blow” to world heritage.
Sky’s Special Correspondent Alex Crawford was the first journalist to enter Timbuktu as the French were heading into the city.
She said: “In the centre of the town they are celebrating, they’re going absolutely bonkers with flags, cheering and waving and saying thank you to the French.”
But amid the apparent relief among local people, she reported the anger of those who said they were helpless to stop the Islamists burning ancient documents at the city’s main library, the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research.
Inside the building, which had reportedly been used as a sleeping quarters by the Islamists, Crawford said the empty boxes strewn around her had contained thousands of historic manuscripts.
“Some of the documents date back to the 13th century,” she said. “This was all the documentation they’d built up over centuries of life in Timbuktu – all either burned by the Jihadists or they have disappeared.”
The city’s 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. It’s truly alarming that this has happened.”
During their rule, the militants systematically destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu, long a hub of Islamic learning.
Crawford, who is embedded with the French forces, visited the tombs of three local Sufi saints, which were centuries old. Her report showed they had been reduced to piles of rubble.
UNESCO says that one of those destroyed was the tomb of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955.
A spokesman for the al Qaeda-linked militants has said the tombs were destroyed because they contravened Islam, encouraging Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.
Ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters had taken control of Timbuktu’s airport and the roads leading to the town in an overnight operation.
It is part of the French-led mission to oust the radical Islamists from the northern half of Mali, which they seized more than nine months ago in the wake of a military coup in the distant capital of Bamako.
The French and Malian forces so far have met little resistance.
Timbuktu lies on an ancient caravan route and has entranced travellers for centuries. It is situated some 1,000km (620 miles) northeast of Bamako.
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Article source: http://news.sky.com/story/1044015