FRENCH-led forces marched unopposed into Mali's ancient trading city of Timbuktu after Islamists linked to al-Qai'da burned thousands of its rarest treasures and fled into the desert.
Thousands cheered "Mali, Mali, Mali" and welcomed the French troops as liberators. Many waved the French flag. Colonel Thierry Burkhard, the chief military spokesman in Paris, said there had been no combat with the Islamists, but that French forces did not yet have complete control.
The Islamists seized Timbuktu last April, imposing a strict interpretation of sharia on its people. Women were forced to wear veils, while music, dancing and even smoking were banned. Some people were subjected to floggings.
The celebrations last night were tempered by the discovery that the extremists had destroyed thousands of rare texts and manuscripts kept in the city, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Timbuktu's mayor confirmed the Islamists had set fire to a world-renowned research centre as they fled. The Ahmed Baba Institute, opened in 2009, housed more than 20,000 priceless letters, books, religious manuscripts and early scientific documents dating from the 14th century.
Some may have been saved as the Islamists arrived, but there were fears a significant portion had been lost. This was "cultural vandalism", one researcher said, comparable to the destruction of the statues of Buddha at Bamiyam in Afghanistan, dynamited by the Taliban in 2001.(© Daily Telegraph, London)