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Malians ‘Thrilled’ to Have Jihadists Driven Out of Gao by Government Forces

January 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Now to the African nation of Mali, where government troops claimed major gains against Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaida. The army entered the ancient city of Timbuktu a day after taking the town of Gao. Both had been held by the militants for months. In support, French forces were air-dropped north of Timbuktu overnight. Along with French helicopters, they helped drive the rebels north.

THIERRY BURKHARD, French Army Spokesman: I can establish that there is a general movement of retreat, but we can’t exactly know what their plan is. And I’m not sure they even have a plan. But it looks like they are heading north and trying to avoid being where operations are taking place.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The militants had systematically destroyed ancient cultural sites in Timbuktu. And before they retreated, they burned a library that held scrolls dating to the Middle Ages. It was unclear how many were destroyed.

Meanwhile, the people of Gao celebrated after the rebels were routed there on Sunday.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News filed this report from Gao.

A warning: It contains some graphic images.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Malian intelligence officers investigating. The barrels in the courtyard, they say, were intended to blow up the bridge over the River Niger leading into Gao. This was a jihadi bomb factory. Interrupted by French airstrikes, they left traces of their trade, potassium nitrate to mix with charcoal for explosives, bullets, but also baguettes and empty sachets of mayonnaise.

The neighbors were never quite sure what was going on in here.

SIDU ABOU, Mechanic: I think they were Arabs. We couldn’t identify them because they wore turbans and wore scarves coiled round their faces. They didn’t speak to anyone, and we were afraid, so we didn’t ask them anything.

LINDSEY HILSUM: OK. So, these are like payments which they’re giving to people working for them?

LT. COL. NEMA SAGARA, Malian Army: Yes.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Malian officers found records of payments, possibly to jihadi fighters, and a money transfer from someone in Saudi Arabia.

NEMA SAGARA: You can see. We hear about it. But this is the proof. They talk about Qatar. They talk about Saudi Arabia and everything. This is the proof, yes. And now we keep that evidence for my people.

LINDSEY HILSUM: We approached Gao at dusk on Saturday. Villages on the outskirts showed their delight as a column of Malian military vehicles drove through.

Yesterday morning, on wasteland a few miles south of town, we saw four dead teenagers, jihadi recruits hit by a French missile fired from a helicopter as they fled Gao. In the early afternoon, we crossed the bridge the jihadis had failed to blow up. A body lay twisted on the railing, a random nameless victim.

And, suddenly, riding on the back of a Malian military pickup, we were amongst the people of Gao, euphorically praising France and freedom. They were part of their country, Mali, again, no longer forced to live in a separate strict Islamist pseudo-state.

What an extraordinary moment in Gao. Look at these people, just thrilled, because they can dance, they can sing, the women can ride motorbikes, they can smoke. These are all the things they haven’t been able to do for the last nine months while the jihadis have been in power.

The mayor of Gao, who returned yesterday from exile in the capital, Bamako, addressed the crowd. No one could hear a word he said. But it didn’t matter. He was back, a symbol of the Malian state. People are looking forward to the first consignment of beer, hopefully soon.

Today, the streets were calm, time to learn from some of the women we met what really happened in Gao.

“They took me into their home.” The jihadis refused to let this half-blind woman or any others wear glasses because, the women said, “They didn’t want us to see the world.”

They showed me how they were forced to wear hijab and how they have thrown it off.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  See a slide show of images from the offensive by the French and Malian troops on our Web site. And you can learn more about the ancient manuscripts housed in Timbuktu. Find a link to a story correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro filed in 2003 for the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”