French and Malian troops retake Timbuktu

Malian soldiers enter the historic city of Timbuktu, occupied for 10 months by Islamists who imposed a harsh form of sharia, on January 28, 2013. Hundreds of people scrambled Monday to give French-led troops a hero's welcome as they entered the city. ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Updated 3:04 p.m. ET

SEVARE, MaliMalian soldiers entered the city of Timbuktu on Monday after al Qaeda-linked militants fled into the desert having set ablaze a library that held thousands of ancient manuscripts ablaze.

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. Reuters reports the Malian troops supported by the French military were able to retake control of the town without a shot being fired.

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 had 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.

"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.

The French said Mali's weak military must finish the job of securing Timbuktu. But they have generally 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.

It 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.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports the militants largely seem to be melting away, rather than standing and fighting, but the French warn that they may simply be moving further north into the desert and planning to regroup and then return. The challenge of securing northern Mali in the longer-term, however, is enormous, even with the help of armies from neighboring African nations. The sprawling desert region is about the size of Texas.

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.

"There was an operation on Timbuktu last night that allowed us to control access to the town," Col. Burkhard said Monday. "It's up to Malian forces to retake the town."

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."

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 as far as the 12th century. It was not immediately known how many of the irreplaceable manuscripts had been destroyed.

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