'We are independent again' say ecstatic Timbuktu residents

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AFP) - "We are independent again! We were held hostage for 10 months but it seemed like 10 years," exulted Hama Cisse, echoing the euphoria in Mali's historic city of Timbuktu which French-led soldiers freed from Islamist occupation on Monday.

In the dusty streets of the ancient city on the edge of the Sahara, which fell to French and Malian soldiers without any resistance by Islamists, the women were walking again freely after being cloistered and forced to cover their faces.

"I had to wear a burqah, gloves and cover everything," said Lahlia Garba, a woman in her fifties, adding she suffered from "anxiety and stomach pain" every time she was trapped in layers of cloth.

The once cosmopolitan town and a centre of Islamic learning for centuries, Timbuktu 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". Their reign of terror in this UNESCO listed World Heritage Site also extended to amputations.

As French and Malian troops rolled into the city in the early afternoon around 1400 GMT, excited crowds milled around shouting "Mali, France", "Thank you, Francois Hollande" and waved the French and Malian tricolours.

The troops deployed rapidly across the city and staged patrols. The French soldiers retreated to the outskirts in the evening.

"We entered but we are not staying, it's the Malians who will make contact with the population," a French officer said.

A resident, who gave his name only as Mahamane spoke to AFP of months of "suffering" as well as of "floggings" inflicted by the Islamists, while the marks of their occupation were visible all around.

"Timbuktu was built on Islam and Islamic law will prevail here," read slogans written on city walls.

Residents said the occupiers had left several days ago, as French airstrikes rained down on their bases across the north.

A French military source said there were fears the Islamists could have dotted the city with mines, adding troops were in the process of "securing" it.

The city's cultural heritage suffered a body blow with the Islamists torching a building housing tens of thousands of manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece in a last act of spite and revenge.

Mayor Halley Ousmane confirmed the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts and was set up in 1973.

In 2009, a new building was opened following a bilateral agreement with South Africa to promote the conservation, research and promotion of the manuscripts as African heritage.

Malian troops meanwhile conducted house-to-house searches.

"We are in the process of recovering materiel and ammunition," said second lieutenant Dramane Dambele as his Malian troops seized large caches.

"We are looking for people who were linked to the Islamists but for the time being, we haven't found any," he said.

Residents said the Islamists started fleeing north from Friday morning and the last of them left on Sunday after French air strikes.

They looted shops and the town hall, burnt several buildings and many offices.

"They also burnt several ancient manuscripts, I don't know which ones," said Mahalmoudou Tandina, a 46-year-old who says he "imparts religious instruction to children."

"The last Islamist I saw here was a Frenchman named Abdeljalil", he said, referring to Gilles Le Guen, a man in his fifties who converted to Islam and become an Islamist hardliner. He is well-known in local Islamist circles.

Several Al Qaeda-linked groups had been in control of the city since April including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Tuareg rebel group MNLA which is fighting for an independent homeland called Azawad.

Residents also said the Islamist fighters came from several neighbouring countries including Algeria, Libya, Mauritania and Chad.

But although they committed sweeping rights abuses they didn't carry out many executions, locals said.

"They killed one person while they were entering the city and one while they stayed here because they cut off both his hands," and he bled to death, said Mahalmoudou Tandina.

"And yesterday, they killed a youth, I don't know why," he said. Mayor Ousmane said in Bamako he heard reports that the Islamists burnt a man alive before leaving.

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