BAMAKO, Mali -- Islamist fighters in Mali's city of Timbuktu destroyed a library containing historic manuscripts before they fled advancing French and Malian forces, the town's mayor said.
The militants attacked a new building of the Ahmed Baba Institute that was opened in 2009 with South African funding, Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse said Monday by phone from Bamako, the capital. They also ransacked the town hall before they started leaving Friday, he said. "They have completely destroyed the new center," he said. "A sizable part of the manuscripts were still in the old center."
Timbuktu is known for three ancient mosques and 16 mausoleums dating as far back as the 15th century, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, which has designated the desert city a World Heritage site. Islamist rebels said in July that they were destroying historic mausoleums and mosques in the city because they consider the sites "idolatrous."
Malian forces have entered Timbuktu as French forces encircled the city, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard said. While there have been no reports of fighting, the town isn't yet under full control, he said at a Paris news conference.
French and Malian forces now hold the city's airport, about 4.4 miles from the town center, Mali's army spokesman, Col. Diarran Kone, said by phone from Bamako.
Fighting alongside Malian and African forces, the French on Saturday captured another northern town, Gao, about 590 miles north of Bamako, according to France's Defense Ministry. Once government forces take back full control of Timbuktu, Kidal would be the last of three large northern cities that the rebels control.
"Things are going as expected," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on the Paris-based France 2 television channel of the French intervention. "What's important is that Mali, little by little, is liberated."
French President Francois Hollande said he doesn't intend to keep French troops in Mali indefinitely, and that Malian and other African forces should pick up the task of holding the ground recovered from insurgents. Mr. Hollande said Mali's government should move as quickly as possible to organize elections to bolster its legitimacy. The Malians and African forces also need financial support, and France is organizing a donor conference, he said at a Paris news conference with Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
The United Nations is ready for a "major effort" to support Mali's government, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Sunday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. He called supporting Mali a "moral imperative."
French Rafale and Mirage 2000 warplanes carried out 20 bombing raids the nights before ground troops reached Gao and Timbuktu, the French Defense Ministry said. Timbuktu was approached from the south by French armored forces Sunday, while paratroopers were dropped to the town's north to prevent militants' escape.
Helicopter-borne French special forces seized Gao's airport and bridge early Saturday and were reinforced that evening by an airlift of 40 Chadian troops and 40 Niger troops, according to the ministry account. The city of Gao was taken the next day by Malian and French troops. The battle to take the key Gao bridge was "brief and violent," with 15 militants killed, Mr. Burkhard said. No prisoners were taken, and no French personnel were injured, he said.
Some Islamist fighters "have escaped, and some are hiding, and we'll help the African troops pursue them," French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on France's TF1 channel.
France intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 after Islamist fighters overran the town of Konna, sparking concern that they might advance to Bamako. European and U.S. leaders have said northern Mali is turning into a haven for Islamist militants intent on attacking Western targets. Several insurgent groups, including Touareg separatists and al-Qaida-linked Islamists, seized northern Mali last year, after a March coup in the capital.
The French defense ministry said 3,700 soldiers are involved in its Mali operation, including 2,500 on Malian soil. West African nations decided to almost double their Mali mission to 5,700 troops, Gen. Shehu Abdulkadir, commander of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, said Saturday.
The International Monetary Fund said Monday that it had approved disbursing about $18.4 million to Mali under its rapid credit facility "to support the authorities with policy advice and financial support to maintain macroeconomic stability and growth during the next 12 months."world