SEVARE, Mali — French-led forces entered Mali’s legendary desert city of Timbuktu on Monday as Al Qaeda-linked fighters fled amid fresh reports of a population terrorized and prized ancient artifacts destroyed during their nine-month occupation.
The French troops blocked access to the Saharan city while Malian troops worked to flush out any remaining rebels, French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard told reporters in Paris. He said Timbuktu was not fully under control, though a Malian colonel was quoted later by Agence France-Presse as saying the city had fallen.
“We have to be extremely careful,” Burkhard said. “But in general terms, the necessary elements are in place to take control.”
The assault came amid reports that fleeing Islamist militants had set ablaze the Ahmed Baba Institute, a library where ancient manuscripts were stored, some dating to the 12th century. The collection totaled thousands of works and was seen as one of Africa’s most important cultural treasures.
The torching of the library, confirmed by Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle to news agencies, followed the destruction last year of ancient tombs in the city that were deemed un-Islamic by the militants.
France deployed troops this month at the request of the West African nation’s government after the militants, who had seized control of northern Mali last year, threatened to move south toward the capital, Bamako. The only major northern city remaining in Islamist hands is Kidal, a stronghold of Ansar Dine, one of several militias operating in the north.
Residents who fled Timbuktu while the city was still under rebel control told The Times this week that the occupation was a time of terror, with harsh rules, violent punishment and shocking acts of desecration.
Every week, the militants seemed to come up with something new to horrify and cow the population, said George Lansar, 40, a tour guide and mechanic who fled the city last month.
Timbuktu, famous for its mosques made of mud, ancient tombs, music and manuscripts, was Mali’s main tourist draw. So many foreigners once thronged the streets that Fatima Fatandou, 35, who worked at a radio station before the militants came, imagined it must look a bit like Paris.
She loved the morning, when the streets bustled with people going to work and the market, and the evenings, when the desert sunset glowed and the farmers ambled back from their fields on their donkey carts.
“Timbuktu was marvelous,” she said. “Everyone lived happily together.”
But the occupation changed all that. The militants hunger for information on transgressors of sharia, the Islamic law they imposed, brought out rivalries and petty grudges.
Lansar said the Islamists paid for information on violations of their strict code, and with the city’s tourist-based economy in collapse, many people told tales in return for the cash.
The first thing the Islamists did, Lansar and others said, was to destroy city administration buildings. They smashed bars and restaurants where alcohol was sold, banned smoking and outlawed music, dancing and soccer.
Lansar said the Islamists forced people to attend public floggings and other punishments. He saw a murder suspect blindfolded, tied to a tree and shot. He also saw a man accused of theft tied to a chair in the public square, his hand placed on a wooden plank, next to a copy of the Koran.
“He was shaking and screaming, ‘Help me, help me!’” Lansar said. A militant raised a machete high and brought it down with a crash, severing the man’s hand.
“I just didn’t know what to do. We had no power,” Lansar said.
For a month in a reeking cell, Mariam Alhad cooked for the militants and washed their clothes, wondering if anyone was doing that for her nine children.
Her husband had fled the day after Timbuktu fell to the Islamists, narrowly escaping arrest because he had worked as a government translator at the police station. She hid in a neighbor’s bathroom for two months, leaving her children behind. One June night she crept home, her face hidden under a veil, to be reunited with them. The next morning, militants surrounded the house and seized her. She wondered who informed on her.
During her time in jail, Alhad heard the screams of a man lashed 100 times for adultery and the cries of his girlfriend, who was whipped 50 times. The Islamists told prisoners the man died in hospital.
Alhad witnessed the suffering of a pregnant woman, arrested on the street, who died giving birth in the cell without medical attention. The baby died too.
“All I could think about was dying,” Alhad said. “It smelled horrible and it was a bad place. I felt like that badness was getting inside me. I cried all the time.”
The day she was released, she fled to the town of Sevare without her children. A friend later helped the children reach her.
Fatima Walet, 28, said she was arrested because two men who were not family members came by her house for a drink of water, something they had done for years. A couple who had a baby out of wedlock were publicly lashed, according to locals.
Baba Traore, 29, made about $8 a month as a tailor but more than $40 a month bringing alcohol to Timbuktu from Bamako, so he continued smuggling in liquor after the ban. He was betrayed by a drunk and arrested by Ansar Dine.
“They took me to the police station and beat me all night with a stick,” he said. “They beat me every day for a week.”
He escaped over the prison’s high mud wall.
“I waited for the moment they were praying and I jumped over that wall and got away,” he said. “It was fear that made me jump the wall. I could never have jumped it normally.”
Lansar, the tour guide, saw his 19-year-old sister seized soon after Ansar Dine took Timbuktu because she walked out of her yard to throw a bucket of water onto the street without wearing a veil.
“They beat her in front of the house with a whip, maybe 30 times, and nobody could say anything,” he said, describing the leather whip with three thick strands at the end. “I couldn’t do anything, because they had guns.”
In a series of attacks, militants with machetes and hoes destroyed ancient tombs constructed of mud that had been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
“It’s crazy. You can’t rebuild them. You can’t make water out of earth. They were hundreds of years old. People came to Mali just to see them,” Lansar said.
He believes it will take years for Timbuktu’s tourism to recover. “We’ve lost the great history of Mali.”
Even before the library fire, some of the city’s collection of priceless ancient manuscripts had been piled in heaps and burned, he said. “I saw it once, but it happened a few times.”
But beyond the terror, there was long deadening boredom. Life was harsh for women, who were forced to wear thick veils and whose freedom to move about was largely curtailed, other than quick trips to the market for provisions.
“They didn’t accept people coming and going in the city,” said Walet. “Nobody could play sport. A woman could not greet a man and give him her hand.”
Fatandou was forced to give up her job at the radio station, so she fled the city.
“There was no freedom, nothing to do,” she said. “Now, if there’s peace, we are going to get our country back.”
Special correspondent Kim Willsher in Paris contributed to this report.