NAIROBI, Kenya — French and Malian forces in Mali had seized control of the airport in Timbuktu from the Islamist rebels by Monday, according to a spokesman for the Malian military.
By 1 p.m. EST Monday, French media was reporting that troops had entered the city center amid scenes of great joy among the population.
Reuters reported that the fleeing rebels set fire to several buildings, including a priceless manuscript library, containing texts judged to be against the interpretation of Islamic law.
Following the news, fears rose for Timbuktu's collection of hundreds of thousands of priceless manuscripts. The city's mayor said he believed that the Ahmed Baba Institute, where around 35,000 manuscripts were housed, had been set on fire by retreating Islamists.
"It's truly alarming that this has happened," Mayor Ousmane Halle told the Associated Press by telephone from Mali's capital, Bamako.
"They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people."
Timbuktu, a UNESCO-listed world heritage site, has become famous for its many of tens of thousands of manuscripts covering history, medicine, law, Islamic treatises, astronomy, philosophy, literature, genealogies and early hand-written Qurans. The manuscripts are proof of a vibrant written culture that predated colonialism and is rarely recognized.
Hope not lost
But amid the concern and confusion about the extent of damage to the Ahmed Baba Institute and other libraries, many of which are family-run, there was also hope that many of the manuscripts may in fact have been saved.
GlobalPost's senior correspondent in Africa, Tristan McConnell, reports that in the wake of the Islamist takeover last April owners, collectors and curators began hiding the manuscripts for safekeeping.
It would be nothing new. In centuries past when Timbuktu has faced an outside threat — whether from invading empires, European colonialists or Tuareg rebels — the manuscripts have been hidden, often buried in the desert or beneath houses.
"Private library owners are convinced that their materials are safe," Shamil Jeppie, director of the Cape Town based Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, told GlobalPost.
Jeppie said some smuggled their papers out to the capital Bamako and others hid their collections in and around Timbuktu. Jeppie's program has since 2004 been digitizing the manuscripts to save them for posterity and make them more widely available to researchers.
But he said Monday there was simply no information about the manuscripts stored at the Ahmed Baba Institute's two facilities. "We don't know anything about the state libraries," he said.
One source with intimate knowledge of Timbuktu's manuscripts, but who wished to remain anonymous, insisted to GlobalPost that the entire contents of the Ahmed Baba Institute had been squirreled away to safety. "Things are very, very difficult but the manuscripts are safe," the source said.
It has so far been impossible to either confirm the source's claims or verify the concerns of Timbuktu's mayor who spoke to reporters from Bamako, but as French and Malian soldiers seal their control over the city the extent of damage caused to the desert city's rich cultural heritage by months of Islamist control will become clear.
Intervention according to plan
French President Francois Hollande spoke to press in Paris Monday evening.
"I salute the courage and efficincy of the French soldiers," he said after talks with Poland's prime minister. "Our intervention has been decisive in stopping the terrorists. We are winning this battle."
The French intervention on behalf of the Mali government started earlier this month, amid fears that the Islamist rebels could threaten southern Mali and create a haven for terrorists.
French Col. Thierry Burkhard, the chief military spokesman in Paris, told AP that Timbuktu's airport was taken from the rebels Monday without firing a single shot.
In a rapid advance across into north over the weekend, French troops backed by Malian government forces captured the key city of Gao without a fight. Blasted by the French airforce, the rebels pulled out allowing the French to be greeted as liberators by crowds of flag-waving locals.
French media said the capture of Gao included the first operational drop by French paratroopers in 35 years.
Hollande said that the longer term task of stabilizing the country will fall to Africans.
Chasing the Islamists out of the cities may be the easy part. As US commanders found in Afghanistan and Iraq, preventing them from regrouping in desert hideouts from where they can launch an insurgency campaign will prove more difficult.
France has 2,150 troops on the ground, with 1,000 supporting troops elsewhere, according to CNN.
More on GlobalPost: Mali crisis: French-led troops secure Timbuktu
Paul Ames contributed to this report from Brussels. Tristan McConnell contributed to this report from Nairobi.