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Mali’s Ancient Manuscripts Spared Destruction in Timbuktu

February 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: And we turn now to the West African nation of Mali, where the French military continues its pursuit of Islamists, amid new indications that many of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts have been saved.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: French warplanes struck ever deeper into the desert of Northern Mali today, attacking remote camps used by Islamist insurgents tied to al-Qaida.

In the last week, French paratroopers and targeted airstrikes routed Islamists from the key northern cities of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. Now the air campaign is focused on fuel depots, training camps and the rebels’ Saharan hideouts farther north.

In Paris today, Vice President Joe Biden praised President Francois Hollande’s decision to intervene.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN, United States: Let me say again on behalf of president and the people of the United States we applaud your decisiveness, and I might add the incredible competence and capability of your French military forces.

MARGARET WARNER: On Saturday the French president visited Timbuktu and received a hero’s welcome. He was joined by Irina Bokova head of the U.N. cultural heritage agency UNESCO. Together, they toured the ancient city’s famed sites, including its Grand Mosque built in the 14th century and this library once filled with priceless centuries-old manuscripts.

The manuscripts were initially feared to have been burned, but it now appears the vast majority were saved.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, France: What we did was to liberate and to ensure that cultural places, but also heritage elements like the manuscripts, are protected and safeguarded.

MARGARET WARNER: Not as fortunate were these medieval mausoleums recognized by UNESCO as world treasures. The Islamists deemed them idolatrous shrines and last July they hacked many of them into rubble.

Today, Tuareg rebels opposed to the Islamists and the government claim they captured the top Islamist insurgent who had imposed strict Sharia law in Timbuktu. Meanwhile, the French military said its 600 troops now patrolling the city plan to turn it over to Malian forces later this week.