SEVARE, Mali – Malian 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, but that the forces did not yet control the town as of Monday afternoon.
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.
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.
Owners have succeeded in removing some of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to save them, while others have been carefully hidden away from the Islamists who seized Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in the wake of a coup last March.
The Islamists, though, still maintain control of the provincial capital of Kidal further north and are believed to have a complex system of desert bases including self-constructed caves to which they can escape, only to launch attacks at a later date.
The AP reported last month that they have used bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts.
Timbuktu, which lies on an ancient caravan route, has entranced travelers for centuries. During their rule on Timbuktu, the militants systematically destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A spokesman for the Al Qaeda linked militants has said that the ancient tombs of Sufi saints were destroyed because they contravened Islam, encouraging Muslims to venerate saints instead of God.
Among the tombs they destroyed is that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955, according to the UNESCO website.
The destructions recall tactics used by the Taliban in 2001 when they dynamited a pair of giant Buddhas carved into a mountain in Bamiyan province. Around the same time, the Taliban also rampaged through the national museum, smashing any art depicting the human form, considered idolatrous under their hardline interpretation of Islam. In all, they destroyed about 2,500 statues.
The Al Qaeda-linked militants had forced women to wear veils or else face public whippings and people were also lashed for possessing cigarettes. A couple accused of adultery was stoned to death in Kidal, and one man convicted of murder was executed in public in Timbuktu.
The harsh conditions forced many of the town's 50,000 residents to flee south.
Nana Toure, a native of Timbuktu now living in the capital, said she is delighted to hear that the French have arrived but worried how long the Malian soldiers could hold the town without help.
"Frankly, if they secure the city today, I am ready to return immediately to Timbuktu," she said. "French troops must not leave us alone then because those (Islamists) who fled may come back and cause problem to us. French troops have to stay a bit to stabilize the place."