Ground forces backed by French paratroopers in Mali prepare to capture Timbuktu after taking control of airports and roads

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Fall of Timbuktu will mark the end of an initial, lightning advance by French and Malian forces into territory overrun by Islamists

Paris

French and Malian forces today surrounded the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, leaving only one large settlement in Mali in the grip of islamist rebels.

The fall of Timbuktu, a world heritage site and legendary destination since the middle ages, will mark the end of an initial, lightning advance by French and Malian forces into territory overrun by the Islamists. Many of the rebels are believed to have retreated to their last bastion, Kiddal, in the mountainous north east of Mali, close to the Algerian border.

A French military spokesman said this morning that Malian troops would lead the advance into Timbuktu later today. It was unclear how many Islamist fighters remained in the town.

Reports are emerging from Timbuktu of the summary execution by lslamists of at last one young man who celebrated the French-led advance. There have also been reports of the burning by Islamists of some of the 20,000 ancient Islamic manuscripts which have been preserved in Timbuktu since the middle ages.

French and Malian ground forces backed by French paratroopers and helicopters seized the airport and all roads leading to town overnight. A similar operation preceded the fall of Gao (population 60,000), the largest town held by rebels, on Saturday.

Colonel Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French chiefs of staff, said today that the Timbuktu airport was captured without resistance. “There was an operation on Timbuktu last night that allowed us to control access to the town,” he said. “It's now up to Malian forces to retake the town.”

The rapid advance by French and Malian forces since the middle of last week means that almost all the Niger river valley – the most populous part of northern Mali – has been recaptured from the rebel groups who overran the immense, northern part of the country last year. Defence sources in Paris say that the 2,500 French troops will pause before moving on towards the last Islamist bastions in the far north east.    

As it enters its third week, French sources are delighted by the relative smoothness of their operation to help the Malian government to defeat|the rebels. They have warned, however, that the conflict may soon enter a hit-and-run guerrilla phase.

During their occupation of Timbuktu since last summer, the Islamist militants are reported to have destroyed some of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the tombs of Sufi saints. According to the fundamentalist interpretation of of Islam, the tombs are heretical because they encourage Muslims to worship saints rather than God.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Mail Machine Operative

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an i...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Day In a Page

Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa corruption: The officials are caught in the web of US legal imperialism - where double standards don't get in the way

Caught in the web of legal imperialism

The Fifa officials ensnared by America's extraterritorial authority are only the latest examples of this fearsome power, says Rupert Cornwell
Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert