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French forces seal off Mali's Timbuktu, rebels torch library

GAO, Mali -- French and Malian troops on Monday sealed off Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, after fleeing Islamist rebel fighters torched several buildings in the ancient Saharan trading town, including a priceless manuscript library.

Without a shot being fired to stop them, 1,000 French soldiers including paratroopers and 200 Malian troops seized the airport and surrounded the centuries-old Niger River city, looking to block the escape of al-Qaida-allied fighters.

The retaking of Timbuktu followed the swift capture by French and Malian forces at the weekend of Gao, another major northern Malian town which had also been occupied by the alliance of Islamist militant groups since last year.

A two-week intervention by France in its former Sahel colony, at the request of Mali's government but also with wide international backing, has driven the Islamist rebel fighters northwards out of towns into the desert and mountains.

A French military spokesman said the assault forces at Timbuktu were being careful to avoid combat inside the city so as not to damage cultural treasures and mosques and religious shrines in what is considered a seat of Islamic learning.

But Timbuktu's mayor, Ousmane Halle, reported that fleeing Islamist fighters had torched a South African-funded library in the city containing thousands of priceless manuscripts.

“The rebels set fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... this happened four days ago,” Halle Ousmane told Reuters by telephone from Bamako. He said he had received the information from his chief of communications who had travelled south from the city a day ago.

Ousmane was not able to immediately say how much the concrete building had been damaged. He added the rebels also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.

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 French and Malians have faced no resistance so far at Timbuktu, but they face a tough job of combing through the labyrinth of ancient mosques and monuments and mud-brick homes between alleys to flush out any hiding Islamist fighters.

“We have to be extremely careful. But in general terms, the necessary elements are in place to take control,” French army spokesman Lieutenant Thierry Burkhard said in Paris.

Timbuktu member of parliament El Hadj Baba Haara told Reuters in Bamako the Islamist rebels had abandoned the city. “They all fled. Before their departure they destroyed some buildings, including private homes,” he said.

The United States and European Union are backing the French-led Mali operation as a strike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state's inhospitable Sahara desert as a launch pad for international attacks.

They are helping with intelligence, airlift of troops, refueling of planes and logistics, but do not plan to send combat troops to Mali.

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