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'Islamist insurgents' retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town's mayor, in an incident he described as a 'devastating blow' to world heritage.

Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century. They also burned down the town hall, the governor's office and an MP's residence, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.

French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town's airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's rich medieval history. The rebels attacked the airport on Sunday, the mayor said.

Luke Harding

South African Reaction 
'It's an absolute tragedy'

Essop Pahad, who was chairman of the Timbuktu manuscripts project for the South African government, said: 'I'm absolutely devastated, as everybody else should be. I can't imagine how anybody, whatever their political or ideological leanings, could destroy some of the most precious heritage of our continent. They could not be in their right minds.

'The manuscripts gave you such a fantastic feeling of the history of this continent. They made you proud to be African. Especially in a context where you're told that Africa has no history because of colonialism and all that. Some are in private hands but the fact is these have been destroyed and it's an absolute tragedy.'

He added: 'It's one of our greatest cultural treasure houses. It's also one of the great treasure houses of Islamic history. The writings are so forward-looking on marriage, on trade, on all sorts of things. If the libraries are destroyed then a very important part of African and world history are gone. I'm so terribly upset at hearing what's happened. I can't think of anything more terrible.'

Riason Naidoo, who directed the Timbuktu manuscripts project, said he is still awaiting confirmation of the extent of the damage. 'It would be a catastrophe if the reports are true,' he said. 'I just hope certain parts of the building are unharmed and the manuscripts are safe.'

The then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was inspired by the 'intellectual treasure' while visiting Timbuktu in 2001, and initiated a joint project between the two countries. He attended the opening of the Ahmad Babu Institute in 2009. A spokeswoman for the Thabo Mbeki Foundation said on Monday: 'We haven't yet heard anything concrete as to what the real story is, so at the moment we can't really comment. We're getting mixed stories.'

David Smith

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Click the image for a view of: Detail of a manuscript from The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project
Detail of a manuscript from The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project


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