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French, Malian soldiers drive extremists out of city of Timbuktu

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Jan. 28, 2013: In this photo provided by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) and released Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, a crowd cheers the arrival of French soldiers in Timbuktu, in northern Mali. (AP/French Army Communications Audiovisual Office)

As French and Malian soldiers held control of the fabled desert city of Timbuktu following the retreat of Islamist extremists, Tuareg fighters claimed Tuesday that they seized the strategic city of Kidal and other northern towns.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad — the Tuareg group's name for northern Mali — appears to have taken advantage of a French-led bombing and ground campaign to dislodge Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters from the towns in northern Mali.

Phone lines were down in Kidal, making it difficult to independently confirm the group's claim.

The Tuareg movement said on its website that it was ready to work with French troops and fight terror organizations.

However, it said it would refuse to allow Malian soldiers in Kidal, and the other towns under its control in northeastern Mali, following allegations that the troops killed civilians suspected of having links to the Islamists.

It said it "decided to retake these localities with all urgency to assure the security of the belongings, and more particularly of people, because of the grave danger their lives faced with the return of the Malian army, marching in the footsteps of the French army."

While the group known as NMLA was an important player in the early days of the Malian conflict last April, it had been ousted from power in northern Mali by the Al Qaeda-linked extremists known as Ansar Dine.

Kidal is the last of the three provincial capitals across the north that had been under the grip of the Islamists since last April. French and Malian forces retook Gao over the weekend, and announced Monday that the Malians had entered the fabled city of Timbuktu.

"The Malian military is in control of Timbuktu," Modibo Traore told The Associated Press on Tuesday morning.

The French military operation began more than two weeks ago and has so far met little resistance though experts warn it will be harder to hold on to the towns than it was to recapture them from the Islamists.

Photos released by the French military showed throngs of jubilant residents greeting the arrival of troops in the town, where Islamists whipped women for going outside without veils and amputated the hand of a suspected thief.

There also was celebration among the thousands of Timbuktu residents who fled the city rather than live under strict and pitiless Islamic rule and the dire poverty that worsened after the tourist industry was destroyed.

"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.

However, the mayor of Timbuktu said Islamists set fire to an institute housing irreplaceable manuscripts before they fled the town.

Timbuktu has been home to some 20,000 irreplaceable manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century. It was not immediately known how many were destroyed in the blaze that was set in recent days in an act of vengeance by the Islamists before they withdrew.

Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called the arson a "desecration to humanity."

"These manuscripts are irreplaceable. They have the wisdom of the ages and it's the most important find since the Dead Sea Scrolls," he said.