Fleeing Islamists torched a building that houses priceless ancient manuscripts in Mali’s fabled desert city of Timbuktu, which was ringed on Monday by the French-led troops making a lightning advance north.

A building housing tens of thousands of manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece was set aflame, raising fears of further damage to the country’s cultural heritage after months of destruction by radical Islamists. French paratroopers swooped i n to try to block fleeing hardliners as ground troops coming from the south seized the airport of Timbuktu, which has been a bastion of the extremists controlling the north for 10 months. “We control the airport at Timbuktu,” a senior officer with the Malian army told AFP.

French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told AFP the troops, backed up by helicopters, seized control of the so-called Niger Loop — an area hugging a curve of the Niger River flowing between Timbuktu and Gao — in less than 48 hours.

A fabled caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu was for centuries a key centre 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 veils, whipped and stoned those who violated their version of strict Islamic law, and destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered “idolatrous.”

Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, who is in Bamako, 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.

“I spoke to my media officer this [Monday] morning. What has happened in Timbuktu is dramatic,” he said. — AFP

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