French and Malian troops have taken control of the historic Malian city of Timbuktu, after rebel occupiers fled the ancient Sahara trading town and torched several buildings, including a priceless manuscript library.
The French-led coalition troops were welcomed by residents of the town, AFP news agency reported with some residents saying that the rebel fighters had left the city several days ago.
“The Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the town of Timbuktu. Everything is under control,” a colonel in the Malian army told AFP on condition of anonymity.
A French military source said there were fears they could have dotted the city with mines, adding that they were in the process of “securing” it.
Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from Timbuktu said that the streets were almost empty when the coalition troops arrived.
“As we got deeper into the city the crowd got bigger.”
Malian troops have been leading the entrance into various towns, with the French troops numbering about 3,000 behind them.
Our correspondent said that this was intended to give the impression that Malian troops were retaking the town while they were actually being reinstalled in the town by the French troops.
She said that there had been little fighting as the coalition troops retook various towns, and that the rebels had simply “melted away”, possibly into Mauritania and other neighbouring countries.
“Some people say that this may look like a problem postponed,” with likelihood of the return of the rebels at a later stage, she said.
Earlier on Monday, a breakaway group from the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Dine group and Tuareg rebels announced that they had claimed control of a northern town, Kidal.
French President Francois Hollande said on Monday that France was winning the battle, but added that it would be up to African forces to tackle rebels in the northern part of Mali once the key towns in the region were retaken.
“Then the Africans can take over the baton,” Hollande said. “They are the ones who will go into the northern part, which we know is the most difficult because that’s where the terrorists are hiding.”
Nearly 8,000 African troops from Chad and the west African grouping ECOWAS are expected to take over from the French troops, but their deployment has been sluggish with 2,700 split between Mali and Niger.
The African-led force will require a budget of $460m, with the African Union pledging $50m to the mission on the final day of its summit in Addis Ababa on Monday.
One resident who had cried out “Vive la France” was “burnt alive” as the rebels left the Timbuktu.
Fears also soared for the city’s cultural heritage when a building housing tens of thousands of manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece was set aflame.
Mayor Ousmane confirmed the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali’s culture ministry.
However, Shamil Jeppie of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at South Africa’s University of Cape Town said he had no news from the ground but believed some of the most important documents may have been smuggled out or hidden in recent months.
“I’ve heard from reliable sources on the ground that the private libraries took good care of hiding or taking out their stuff,” Jeppie said.