Timbuktu celebrates defeat of Islamist extremists

French President Francois Hollande, left, flanked by Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore, wave as Hollande arrives at the airport of Timbuktu, Mali, Feb. 2, 2013.
AFP/Getty Images

(CBS News) BAMAKO, Mali - The French president capped the triumph of his nation's forces -- with American help -- of retaking the center of culture in this African nation with a quick visit Saturday to the city whose people suffered under the severe Islamic code known as shariah law.

It was a victory lap for French President Francois Hollande. The troops he sent in to Mali three weeks ago chased Islamic extremists out of the town of Timbuktu to the relief and joy of the residents.

The extremists not only tyrannized people with public lashings and amputations, they also desecrated the heritage of this ancient desert trading post.

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Its elaborate mud brick mosques are protected by the United Nations and so were its tombs, built for Islamic saints nearly 700 years ago. A local resident, Sidi Babbi, showed CBS News two of them, now in ruins.

Last spring, the extremists decided they weren't Islamic enough and sent in a wrecking crew.

"We were heartbroken," Babbi said through a translator, "but when we protested they fired their guns in the air to drive us away."

At Timbuktu's library, the extremists turned to arson just before they fled in January, torching some of the 300,000 ancient Arabic documents.

But on Saturday the librarians had good news for France's president: The timely arrival of his army meant that less than one percent of the collection has been destroyed.

Now, feeling safe again, the people of Timbuktu want the French army to stay. Malian troops alone, they say, can't keep the extremists at bay.

But for the French government, mindful of America's recent losses in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving these soldiers here for much longer is simply not an option.

The United States was instrumental in the French victory, offering big military transport aircraft to bring French trucks and soldiers to Mali. Midair fueling for French planes, including fighter planes, was also offered by the U.S. and going forward the nation is going to pledge more than $10 million for training Mali's troops so they can secure their own country in the months ahead.

  • Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."