Will rebuild destroyed mausoleums, says Unesco

Drums rolled, crowds danced and soldiers looked on impassively as French President Francois Hollande arrived in Timbuktu after French and Malian forces recaptured this historic northern town after a 10-month occupation by Islamist rebels.

“Alongside the Malians and the Africans, we have liberated this town,” said Mr. Hollande. “Today Timbuktu, tomorrow Kidal and others.”

Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore thanked France for its support.

“Everyone in Mali recognises that France has responded promptly and robustly,” he said, “Together we will track these terrorists to their last refuge.”

Mr. Hollande’s trip to Timbuktu marks the end of the first phase of a whirlwind military campaign that saw France rush to the aid of its former colony as the rebels closed in on the capital city of Bamako.

In the summer of 2012, nearly two-thirds of Mali was wrested from government control by an assemblage of armed militant groups, including self-identified Islamist groups like Ansar Dine; the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (Mujao); and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In Timbuktu, an 11th-century town of mosques and mausoleums, the Islamists destroyed the tombs of venerated saints, burnt manuscripts and imposed a puritanical version of Islamic law.

On January 10, the rebels advanced on key military town of Sevare, prompting the French intervention. French jets and helicopters pounded rebel positions, even as Special Forces and ground troops arrived from French bases in West Africa.

The first two weeks of the campaign were difficult, as the rebels opened a second front only 400 km from Bamako, but since then French and Malian forces have advanced with relative ease and reclaimed Timbuktu without firing a shot.

The troops are now expected to push further north towards the city of Kidal, which is believed to be the last rebel stronghold.

Symbolism

On Saturday, Mr. Hollande’s carefully choreographed two-hour Timbuktu stopover resonated with symbolism.

He began by visiting the 14th-century Djingareyber Mosque, mingled with giddy crowds outside the Ahmed Baba Library that was partially vandalised by the rebels, and concluded by addressing French and Malian troops at the airport.

“You have accomplished an exceptional mission,” said Mr. Hollande, but warned that the fight was far from over.

“Now it is the Malians that have the responsibility to assume the transition and above all the stability of their country,” he said.

Mr. Hollande obliquely responded to allegations that Malian forces had summarily executed dozens of civilians in the course of military operations by urging troops to refrain from abuses that would “tarnish” the mission.

Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova accompanied the presidential mission to signal the U.N. body’s support for the reconstruction of Timbuktu’s heritage.

“We are yet to assess the extent of the damage, but it looks bad,” said Ms. Bokova. “At least 11 of the 16 mausoleums have been destroyed.”

“We will rebuild the mausoleums,” she said. “We have the plans, we have the designs, we will rebuild them.”