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French Forces Seize Control Outside Timbuktu

January 28, 2013

by VOA News

French forces have taken control of the airport and roads leading into the Malian city of Timbuktu, continuing an operation to oust Islamist militants who have controlled northern Mali for months.

Military officials said Monday paratroopers and ground forces backed by helicopters secured access to the city overnight.

The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO lists Timbuktu as a World Heritage site for its ancient mosques and shrines, some of which date back to the 15th century. But the Islamist group Ansar Dine considers the sites sacrilegious, and militants have destroyed some mausoleums in the city.

Timbuktu's mayor said Monday that Islamists fleeing the town have set fire to a library housing thousands of historic manuscripts.

​​Timbuktu is 300 kilometers northwest of Gao, where French and Malian forces retook control Saturday from Islamists who fled without resistance.

Residents played music in the streets, danced, smoked and wore Western-style clothing Sunday, celebrating their first full day in months without the strict Islamic law the militants had imposed.

VOA West Africa correspondent Anne Look, who is in the Malian capital, Bamako, spoke to residents of Gao by telephone. They told her the Islamists are in hiding, in villages 10 to 15 kilometers outside Gao.

Some residents said the people of Gao are hunting down anyone who collaborated with the Islamist occupiers, and they predicted severe punishment for those collaborators.

France began a military offensive in Mali earlier this month after rebels who had seized control of much of the country's northern territory last year began pushing toward Bamako.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.

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