The legendary city of Timbuktu is now at the center of the conflict in Mali.
French and Malian government forces entered the ancient city on Monday.
Islamist rebels are reported to be dispersing and avoiding direct conflict.
Reports say Timbuktu’s ancient library was set on fire by rebels, but as of 2 p.m. ET Monday, there’s no independent confirmation of this.
What is known for sure is that some women in liberated areas are throwing off the hijab.
Peter Tinti is a freelance reporter In Mali.
He’s been in touch with people in the newly liberated city of Gao.
“People there are ecstatic,” says Tinti. “I could hear drums playing in the background. People out in the streets. People using rhetoric like ‘we’re finally free’, and ‘finally I can breathe.’”
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. The legendary city of Timbuktu is now at the center of the conflict in Mali. Today, French and Malian government forces entered the ancient city. The Islamist rebels who had controlled Timbuktu have apparently fled, but before leaving the rebels reportedly set fire to an ancient library in the city. There’s no independent confirmation though. Peter Tinti is a freelance reporter in Mali. He’s currently in the center of the country and has been in touch with people in Gao, another city that’s just been rested from rebel control.
Peter Tinti: People there were ecstatic. I could hear the drum playing in the background. People were out in the streets. People were using you know, the type of rhetoric that “Finally we’re free, finally I can breathe.” So it seems like there was quite a party going on in that city as thousands of people cheered the arrival of French and Malian troops.
Werman: Right, so people screaming “Finally we’re free.” So is there any evidence of a political offensive to bring the non Islamist Tuaregs back into the fold of Mali?
Tinti: Well, at present, no. It’s not clear what role the MNLA, which is the separatist Tuareg group that more or less started this rebellion and was then later hijacked by the Islamist groups, political reconciliation is going to take time. Many people in southern Mali and many people in northern Mali also consider the MNLA to be a group not worth negotiating with and are quick to lump them in with the Islamist groups and blame them for more or less kicking this whole thing off.
Werman: Peter, let’s talk briefly about the ancient library in Timbuktu. You have spoken with the mayor of Timbuktu, who’s in Bamako, I gather. What does he say?
Tinti: Well, the mayor told me, as he’s told many outlets, that the library has been burned down. This is a very important part of Timbuktu’s culture and really a world treasure. That said, he is in Bamako and we haven’t been able to get any second confirmation on that. And while I think it’s safe to say that we should all be concerned about the possible damage to these manuscripts, I think it might be a bit premature to go ahead and assume that this library has been burned down.
Werman: It is a pretty extraordinary font of information and history there.
Tinti: We’re talking about manuscripts from as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries that are texts of astronomy, science, philosophy. Back when Timbuktu was really the center of world learning. And you know, we don’t know if this particular library has actually been burnt, but we do know that parts of Timbuktu in the last however many months has been destroyed and some of this rich history has been lost. So it’s certainly not unthinkable that this might have happened and it really would be a tragedy.
Werman: Peter, I’ve gotta say so far this conflict in Mali has been a hard war to visualize. Has there been much fighting or has it been mostly French planes bombing and Islamist rebels retreating?
Tinti: You’re absolutely right. Access has been very hard here and you know, reporters who are veterans of other conflicts have you know, confirmed that this is actually the hardest it’s ever been to get near any of the fronts. From the towns I’ve been able to visit that were liberated, all the citizens are saying that the Islamists fled after the bombing. So it appears that most of this has been an aerial assault. French special forces have certainly been operating. French troops are on the ground, but by and large this has been an air campaign that has caused a retreat by the Islamists.
Werman: Freelance reporter Peter Tinti in Sevareid in central Mali, thank you for your time and please be safe.
Tinti: Thank you.
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