“ Mercredi 23/01/13, Depart des Ismalistes de Tombouctou ”, wrote Marafa Cisse on a pillar in his main hall to mark the Wednesday that the combatants of the Ansar Dine Islamist rebel group left Timbuktu after occupying this much-chronicled city of northern Mali for nearly 10 months.
Four days later, French and Malian troops rolled into the city, triggering massive celebrations. Timbuktu is a prized conquest in the whirlwind military campaign that has pitted French jets, helicopters and ground forces against well-drilled and highly mobile rebels who, till recently, controlled nearly two-thirds of Mali. Since the French intervention began on January 11, security forces have reclaimed the cities of Konna, Diabaly, Gao and Timbuktu and are moving towards the final rebel stronghold in Kidal.
In the summer of 2012, an insurgency that began as a rebellion of the Tuareg ethnic minority to carve out an independent homeland in northern Mali escalated into a broad-based movement by Islamists — foreign and Malian — to annex the country and establish Sharia law.