Islamist fighters desert Mali's ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu as French and Malian troops re-take it.

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Islamist militants set fire to a South African-funded library in Timbuktu that contained thousands of priceless manuscripts, the city's mayor, Halle Ousmane, revealed.

The town's mayor was not able to confirm how much of the library building had been damaged but French and Malian troops are now securing the city.

"The rebels set fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... this happened four days ago," Halle Ousmane stated.

Malian forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters took control of Timbuktu's airport and the roads leading to the town in an overnight operation. The troops searched through Timbuktu for Islamist rebel fighters this morning after surrounding the ancient Saharan trading town in a lightning offensive.

A group of 200 French paratroopers were dropped north of the town to stop fighters fleeing in that direction.

French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said "little by little, Mali is being liberated" but warned that armed fighters are now hiding and could reappear.

"The terrorist groups are carrying out a strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north, primarily in Mali," he added

French and Malian armoured columns forced fighters out of the central Malian towns of Diabaly and Douentza last week, and in recent days have inched their way northward.

French special forces backed by warplanes swooped in a commando operation similar to the one at the weekend that seized Gao, seizing Timbuktu airport to open the way for Malian troops

Ancient city

Islamists had occupied the trading town since a Tuareg-led rebellion captured it on April 1 last year from government forces.The Islamists destroyed mausoleums in the city, that is listed as a Unesco world heritage site.

Timbuktu was the centre of Islamic learning from the 13th until the 17th century, with shrines to Islamic saints that are revered by Sufi Muslims but are condemned by the Salafists of Ansar Dine.

The terrorist groups are carrying out a strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north
Laurent Fabius

The Ahmed Baba Institute was one of several libraries and collections in the city containing ancient documents dating back to the 13th century. The building housed more than 20,000 scholarly manuscripts, some in underground vaults. The library was named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare.

The city was founded by Tuareg nomads in the 12th century and became a vital trading route for salt and gold; its remoteness from European explorers made the name Timbuktu synonymous with remoteness.

Fighters from the Islamist alliance in north Mali, which groups AQIM with Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine and AQIM splinter MUJWA, destroyed ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims, provoking international outrage.

British support

David Cameron told French President Francois Hollande that Britain was keen to help the military operation; the RAF has already provided two heavy-lift C17 transport planes and a surveillance aircraft to assist the operation.

Mr Cameron said the UK was ready to offer logistical, intelligence and surveillance help to France, along with troops for a proposed EU mission to train the Malian army but has ruled out a combat role for British forces.

The PM's official spokesman said today"The French president gave an update on the progress that French and Malian forces have been making and also thanked the prime minister for the UK transport assistance.

"The UK national security adviser is in Paris today for discussions with French authorities on what further assistance we may be able to provide to them with regard to Mali."

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