UNESCO chief Irina Bokova warned Thursday that ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu are at risk of being trafficked out of Mali and pledged to help restore the fabled city's heritage damaged by radical Islamists.
Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who seized control of Timbuktu last year caused a global outcry by destroying ancient Muslim saints' shrines they considered idolatrous and burning priceless manuscripts before a French-led military campaign reclaimed the city on January 28.
Most of the city's 13th- and 14th-century manuscripts were smuggled to safety or hidden during the Islamist occupation, say locals and the curators of a South African-sponsored library where many were housed.
But Bokova said some may still be in danger amid the turmoil gripping northern Mali, where the Islamists have launched a string of attacks in recent days.
"I'm worried by the possibility of manuscripts being trafficked," she said in Senegal, where she was on a two-day visit to launch a programme aimed at increasing access to education in sub-Saharan Africa.
"Everything must be done to keep (the manuscripts)... for future generations."
She said the UN educational, scientific and cultural body had begun working with neighbouring countries to guard against the manuscripts being smuggled out of Mali and sold.
Bokova, who visited Timbuktu with French President Francois Hollande on February 2, condemned the Islamists' destructive acts as a "tragedy".
"They burned manuscripts, an extraordinary Islamic treasure. I saw barbaric acts of destruction that left nothing but stones" of the saints' mausoleums, she said.
She vowed UNESCO would help restore damaged heritage sites in the city, which rose to fame in the 14th century as a hub of the gold and salt trades and a centre of Islamic learning.
"As soon as the situation allows, we will send a team of experts to evaluate the situation. We are very engaged in helping the authorities and local population to rebuild the mausoleums," she said.