FRENCH and Malian troops were last night restoring government control over the fabled Saharan trading town of Timbuktu, the latest gain in a fast-moving French-led offensive against the al-Qaeda-allied fighters occupying northern Mali.
The Islamist militant rebels have pulled back northwards to avoid relentless French air strikes that have destroyed their bases, vehicles and weapons, allowing French and Malian troops to advance rapidly with air support and armoured vehicles.
A Malian military source said the French and Malian forces reached “the gates of Timbuktu” late on Saturday without meeting resistance from the Islamist insurgents who had held the town since last year.
The French and Malians controlled the airport and were working on securing the town, a Unesco World Heritage site and a labyrinth of ancient mosques, monuments and mud-brick homes, ready to flush out any Islamist fighters still hiding.
“Timbuktu is delicate, you can’t just go in like that,” the source, who asked not to be named, said.
On Saturday, the French- Malian offensive recaptured Gao, which along with Timbuktu was one of three major northern towns occupied last year by Tuareg and Islamist rebels, who included fighters from al-Qaeda’s North Africa wing, AQIM.
The Malian military source, and at least one resident of Gao who travelled south out of the city, said there were still rebel “pockets of resistance” there, and that government troops were carrying out house-to-house searches.
The third town, Kidal, in Mali’s rugged and remote north-east, remains in rebel hands.
The United States and Europe are backing the UN-mandated Mali operation as a counterstrike against the threat of radical Islamist jihadists using the West African state’s inhospitable Sahara desert as a launch pad for international attacks.
Fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, which groups AQIM with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter MUJWA, had destroyed ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims in Timbuktu, provoking international outrage.
They had also imposed severe sharia law, including amputations for thieves and stoning of adulterers.
France sent warplanes and 2,500 troops to Mali after its government appealed to Paris for help when Islamist rebels early in January launched an offensive south towards the capital Bamako. They seized several towns, since retaken by the French.
In the face of the two-week-old French-Malian counter- offensive, the rebels seemed to be pulling back north into the desert wastes and mountain fastnesses of the Sahara.
Military experts fear they could carry on a gruelling hit-and-run guerrilla war against the government from there.
A leader of Mali’s main Tuareg insurgent movement, MNLA, whose initial separatist rebellion in the north was hijacked by al- Qaeda and its local Malian allies, offered help from his group’s desert fighters to the French-led offensive.
Speaking from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh said the MNLA was preparing to attack the withdrawing al-Qaeda-allied Islamist forces and its leaders, whom he said were hiding in the Tidmane and Tigharghar mountains in the Kidal region that borders with Algeria. At Konna, a town some 300 miles south-east of Gao recaptured from the rebels earlier this month, some people said they were still afraid.
“No-one believes the rebels will give up without resisting. They may be regrouping for an attack, there is fear of a guerrilla war,” said Salou Toure, a middle-aged resident of Timbuktu who had fled that town three months ago.
Malian captain Faran Keita, an army officer in the central Mopti region, said: “We’re at war against terrorists, even here someone with an explosive vest could attack.”