French Troops About to Take Timbuktu as They Push Rebels

Islamist fighters in Mali’s city of Timbuktu destroyed a library containing historic manuscripts before they fled advancing French and Malian forces, the town’s mayor said.

The militants attacked a new building of the Ahmed Baba Institute that was opened in 2009 with South African funding, Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse said yesterday by phone from Bamako, the capital. They also ransacked the town hall before they started leaving on Jan. 25, he said.

“They have completely destroyed the new center,” he said. “A sizable part of the manuscripts were still in the old center.”

Malian forces have entered Timbuktu, with French forces encircling the city, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said. While there have been no reports of fighting, the town isn’t yet under full control, he said in a news conference in Paris.

French and Malian forces now hold the city’s airport, about 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) from the town center, Mali’s army spokesman, Colonel Diarran Kone, said by phone from Bamako.

Fighting alongside Malian and African forces, the French captured another northern town, Gao, about 590 miles (950 kilometers) north of Bamako, on Jan. 26, according to France’s Defense Ministry. Taking full control of Timbuktu would make Kidal the last of three large northern cities the rebels control.

“Things are going as expected,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said of the French intervention on the Paris-based France 2 television channel. “What’s important is that Mali, little by little, is liberated.”

French Goals

French President Francois Hollande said that he doesn’t intend to keep French troops in Mali indefinitely and that Malian and other African forces should pick up the task of holding the ground recovered from insurgents.

Hollande said Mali’s government should move as quickly as possible to organize elections to bolster its legitimacy. The Malians and African forces also need financial support, and France is organizing a donor conference, he said at a news conference in Paris with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

The United Nations is ready for a “major effort” to support Mali’s government, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters yesterday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. He called supporting the Malians a “moral imperative.”

French Rafale and Mirage 2000 warplanes carried out 20 bombing raids the nights before ground troops reached Gao and Timbuktu, according to the French Defense Ministry. Timbuktu was approached by the south by French armored forces Jan. 27, while paratroopers were dropped to the north of the town to prevent escape by militants.

‘Brief and Violent’

Helicopter-borne French special forces seized Gao’s airport and bridge early on Jan. 26 and were reinforced that evening by an airlift of 40 Chadian troops and 40 Niger troops, according to the ministry account. The city of Gao was taken the next day by Malian and French troops.

The battle to take the key Gao bridge was “brief and violent” with 15 militants killed, Burkhard said. No prisoners were taken, and no French personnel were injured, he said.

Some of the Islamist fighters “have escaped and some are hiding, and we’ll help the African troops pursue them,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on France’s TF1 television channel.

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of the Islamists doesn’t mean victory, and the pressure is on France to turn over security operations before its forces get bogged down and hit by roadside bombs and suicide bombers, said a U.S. official who asked to not be named because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

French Intervention

France intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 after Islamist fighters overran the town of Konna, sparking concern they might advance to Bamako. European and U.S. leaders have said that northern Mali is turning into a haven for Islamist militants intent on attacking western targets.

Timbuktu is known for three ancient mosques and 16 mausoleums dating as far back as the 15th century, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which has designated the desert city a World Heritage site.

Islamist rebels said in July that they were destroying historic mausoleums and mosques in the city because they consider the sites “idolatrous.”

Several insurgent groups, including Touareg separatists and al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, seized northern Mali last year, after a March coup in the capital.

West Africa

The French defense ministry has said 3,700 soldiers are involved in the operation to win back the area, including 2,500 on Malian soil. West African nations decided to almost double their Mali mission to 5,700 troops, General Shehu Abdulkadir, commander of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, said on Jan. 26.

Fabius said that after the coalition forces’ “recapture of all of Mali,” France will play a supporting role.

“First the African troops, and then the French are there as support,” he said.

Mali vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-largest producer of gold, with AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. among the companies operating in the country. It ranks 175th of 187 nations on the UN Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.

The International Monetary Fund said yesterday it approved a disbursement of about $18.4 million to Mali under the rapid credit facility “to support the authorities with policy advice and financial support to maintain macroeconomic stability and growth during the next 12 months.”

“Mali’s economy is traversing a particularly difficult period as a result of the 2011 drought, insurgent attacks in the north of the country and political instability in the wake of the military coup in March 2012,” the IMF said in a statement released in Washington.

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