FRENCH troops are expected to try to take control of the ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu today after pushing al-Qa'ida's allies from their other major urban strongholds across northern Mali.
Sources said that armed convoys of Malian and French soldiers reached the gates of the city yesterday after reports that its Islamist occupiers had fled.
Diplomatic sources said immediate attempts to secure Timbuktu were "on hold" as specialist French forces assessed risks that Islamist commanders had given orders that the city's mud-walled buildings and narrow streets be booby-trapped as they left.
However, Mali's army and its French allies are not expected to face significant resistance in Timbuktu following reports that Ansar Dine, the extremist group linked to al-Qa'ida that has held it since last April, had fled early on Saturday.
Timbuktu was one of three major cities in northern Mali, along with Gao and Kidal, that the group controlled until the French operation began more than three weeks ago.
Gao was reportedly recaptured on Saturday. Kidal remained in rebel hands last night, but French jets had bombed the house of Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, although he was not there. The loss of the three cities would be a major blow to the coalition of Islamist groups whose threat to advance southwards toward Bamako, the capital, prompted the French intervention.
While Gao is domestically more significant, taking back control of Timbuktu, 600 miles north of Bamako, would be a major international success for French and Malian forces. The city, where for centuries Berber, Arab, Tuareg and African traders met, is a Unesco World Heritage Site that hosted thousands of ancient manuscripts collected or crafted during the region's intellectual golden age.
Many of these artefacts, and the mosques and shrines that protected them are feared to have been destroyed during the nine-month occupation by Ansar Dine, which considered them idolatrous or anti-Islamic. There were concerns that extensive fighting in the city could risk further damage. (© Daily Telegraph, London)