French President Francois Hollande said
Monday that French and African forces were winning the battle against
Islamist rebels in Mali, but stressed that it was up to African
forces to finish the job.
"We're winning this battle," Hollande said during a press conference in Paris as French-backed government forces started to take control of the desert town of Timbuktu.
The town is the second rebel stronghold to fall within two days. But Hollande was careful not to sound triumphant.
"Northern Mali is still under the terrorists' control," he said, referring to the desert hinterland to which the rebels have retreated and where they may attempt to regroup.
Repeating that France had "no vocation to stay in Mali," Hollande said: "It will be the Africans, as I have indicated before, who will see to it that Mali's territorial integrity is restored."
The operation to recapture Timbuktu began Sunday night when French forces seized the airport and access roads.
There was little sign of resistance, with many of the rebels apparently having already fled, but the troops were nevertheless advancing with caution through the ancient town of mud-brick homes and mosques.
"The main idea is to avoid all senseless destruction of heritage," French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told dpa.
The al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels had already sought to avenge their arrival by torching a library housing thousands of precious manuscripts as they closed in.
Timbuktu's mayor, Halle Ousmane Cisse, told dpa that the radicals had set fire to the Ahmed Baba Institute "about three days ago."
"It's a catastrophe for Timbuktu and all of humanity," he said by telephone from the capital Bamako, where he received the news from an official that witnessed the attack.
The extent of the damage to the collection was unclear.
The library is home to over 20,000 manuscripts on subjects ranging from medicine, to astronomy and midwifery, one of which dates to the 13th century. Many of the older manuscripts, which were passed down through Timbuktu families over generations, were being stored in an older building.
Cisse said the rebels also torched the townhall and several vehicles as well as the home of a local politician.
Last year, the rebels already caused an outcry by destroying shrines and tombs they considered idolatrous and imposing amputations and floggings for crimes and so-called moral offences in a trio of towns: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
Their rout has triggered scenes of rejoicing in liberated towns, where people have greeted the French like heroes.
At the weekend they helped free the eastern town of Gao, which is now being guarded by troops from Niger and Chad.
Next in line lies Kidal, near the border with Algeria - hometown of the homegrown Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine.
Hollande made clear that retaking Kidal will not mean mission accomplished in France's former colony.
France has a "responsibility" to help African forces reestablish a "lasting stability" in Mali, he said.
On Tuesday, international donors will meet in Ethiopia to raise money for the West African intervention force that will be tasked with relieving the French forces, once the main towns have been secured.
Officials are aiming to raise several hundred million dollars. The European Union has promised some 50 million euros (67.2 million dollars) for the force, but has emphasized that the money will not be used for weapons.
France's intervention in Mali began on January 11, at the request of interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore, who asked for help to stop the rebels advancing on the capital Bamako and turning all of Mali into a launchpad for terrorism. One of the three rebel groups targeted by the offensive is already holding at least six French nationals hostage and has been linked to this month's deadly hostage-taking at a gas complex in Algeria.
Several thousand troops from a dozen African countries are expected to join the operation.
But so far only troops from Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad have been deployed, leading to some criticism of African governments.
Some in France have also criticized the half-hearted support from France's allies in Europe and the United States, who have supplied logistical and intelligence support but no combat troops.
Italy, meanwhile, has withdrawn an offer to support the mission after Prime Minister Mario Monti failed to secure support from the country's main political parties.
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