Malians soldiers arriving at Gao airport, north of Mali, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013. French and Malian forces pushed toward the fabled desert town of Timbuktu on Sunday, as the two-week-long French mission gathered momentum against the Islamist extremists who have ruled the north for more than nine months. Image Credit: AP

Gao, Mali: French and Malian troops on Monday sealed off Timbuktu, a Unesco World Heritage site, after fleeing Islamist rebel fighters torched several buildings in the ancient Saharan trading town, including a priceless manuscript library.

Without a shot being fired to stop them, 1,000 French soldiers including paratroopers and 200 Malian troops seized the airport and surrounded the centuries-old Niger River city, looking to block the escape of Al Qaida-allied fighters.

The retaking of Timbuktu followed the swift capture by French and Malian forces at the weekend of Gao, another major northern Malian town which had also been occupied by the alliance of Islamist militant groups since last year.

A two-week intervention by France in its former Sahel colony, at the request of Mali’s government but also with wide international backing, has driven the Islamist rebel fighters northwards out of towns into the desert and mountains.

A French military spokesman said the assault forces at Timbuktu were being careful to avoid combat inside the city so as not to damage cultural treasures and mosques and religious shrines in what is considered a seat of Islamic learning.

But Timbuktu’s mayor, Ousmane Halle, reported that fleeing Islamist fighters had torched a South African-funded library in the city containing thousands of priceless manuscripts.

“The rebels set fire to the newly-constructed Ahmed Baba Institute built by the South Africans ... this happened four days ago,” Halle Ousmane said by telephone from Bamako. He said he had received the information from his chief of communications who had travelled south from the city a day ago.

Ousmane was not able to immediately say how much the concrete building had been damaged. He added the rebels also torched his office and the home of a member of parliament.

The Ahmed Baba Institute, one of several libraries and collections in the city containing fragile ancient documents dating back to the 13th century, is named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and houses more than 20,000 scholarly manuscripts. Some were stored in underground vaults. Secular Malian Tuareg MNLA rebels said on Monday they were now in control of the northern town of Kidal after their former Islamist allies abandoned it.

“Now it is us who are in control,” Colonel Mohammed Ag Najim, the MNLA’s military commander, said from the northeastern town, which was the last stronghold occupied by Al Qaida-allied Islamist fighters after Gao and Timbuktu were taken by French and Malian troops.

Asked where fighters from the Islamist Ansar Deen group which held the town were, Ag Najim replied: “They are gone”. Another MNLA contacted by Reuters gave the same account but there was no immediate independent confirmation.

Meanwhile, the African-led force for Mali will require a budget of $460 million (Dh1.6 billion), the African Union said Monday, promising to contribute $50 million for the mission to support Mali’s army against Islamist militants.

“For the first time in the history of the African Union the budget will be used to support a peace operation,” Ramtane Lamamara, AU’s Peace and Security Commissioner told reporters.