Islamists burn manuscripts as French-led troops ring Timbuktu

Ancient manuscripts displayed at the library in the city of Timbuktu.

BAMAKO: With French-led troops ringing Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu Monday, rumors have emerged that fleeing Islamist militants have torched a center housing a trove of priceless ancient manuscripts.

Lying 1,000 kilometers north of the capital Bamako, Timbuktu is known as “the city of 333 saints.” The fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert was for centuries a key center of Islamic learning and has become a byword for exotic remoteness in the Western imagination.

The once-cosmopolitan town became a dusty outpost for the extremists who forced women to wear hijab, whipped and stoned those who violated their version of Islamic law, and destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.

Reports have emerged from Mali’s Culture Ministry that the hard-liners had burned the Ahmad Baba Center for Documentation and Research, which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece.

“I spoke to my media officer this morning,” said Timbuktu Mayor Halley Ousmane, who is in Bamako. “What has happened in Timbuktu is dramatic.”

The institute was set up in 1973. In 2009, a new building was opened following a bilateral agreement with South Africa to promote the conservation, research and promotion of the manuscripts as African heritage.

“A building housing the manuscripts was burned,” a security source told AFP. The information was confirmed by a Malian soldier forming part of a reconnaissance team in the town.

Mali’s lengthy crisis was kickstarted by a Tuareg rebellion for independence in January 2012, which overwhelmed the weak Malian army and prompted a coup in Bamako in March.

Amid the political vacuum, the Tuareg nomads and Islamists seized the north in a matter of days. The extremists had no interest in the Tuareg desire for independence and sidelined their erstwhile allies to install Shariah law.

The occupation of an area twice the size of France sparked fears abroad that northern Mali could become a new haven for terror groups, threatening the West as well as neighboring African countries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 29, 2013, on page 16.




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