World heritage disaster: rebels torch Timbuktu's priceless relics

Fleeing insurgents set fire to buildings containing 20,000 ancient documents as French troops approach

LAST UPDATED AT 14:46 ON Mon 28 Jan 2013

ISLAMIST insurgents have dealt a "devastating blow" to the world's heritage by torching buildings in Timbuktu containing thousands of priceless documents, some of them 900 years old.

Claims that as many as 20,000 historic manuscripts have been destroyed emerged as French-led troops advanced into the ancient desert trading post today after seizing the airport.

News of the fires has been greeted with dismay. The documents were described by The Guardian as "a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's medieval history" and the oldest of them dated back to 1204.

"The manuscripts survived for centuries in Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara hidden in wooden trunks, boxes beneath the sand and caves," the paper said. "The majority are written in Arabic, with some in African languages, and one in Hebrew, and cover a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights."

Halle Ousmani Ciffe, the city's mayor, said: "This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali's heritage but the world's heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world."

Timbuktu was renowned as a holy city of Sufi saints and learning and it is feared many saints’ shrines, dotted around the city, have been vandalised. The Washington Post claims that "the militants have systematically destroyed UNESCO World Heritage sites" since taking the city last April, and imposed strict Sharia law.

French forces are being "careful" to avoid combat inside the city, reports Reuters, so as not to cause any further unnecessary damage.

Timbuktu, a byword for any far-flung destination, remained undiscovered by Europeans until the 1830s, reports the BBC. Even today there is no tarmac road to the city.

"For centuries, [Europeans] tried to reach the place because it was a mythological place of trade and Islamic scholars," explained Marie Rodet, lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

French and Malian troops have encountered little resistance so far in their efforts to retake Timbuktu after seizing the eastern city of Gao on Saturday.

But their relatively rapid advance has been been possible because the Islamists tend to "melt away" into desert hideouts, taking their vehicles and weapons with them, says Thomas Fessy of the BBC. "Hunting them down in this vast region they [the insurgents] know better than any army will be much harder."

The Independent agrees. "French sources are delighted by the relative smoothness of their operation to help the Malian government to defeat the rebels. They have warned, however, that the conflict may soon enter a hit-and-run guerrilla phase." · 

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