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Fleeing Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor said Monday, as French and Malian forces closed in on Mali's fabled desert city. Ousmane Halle said he heard about the burnings early Monday.
"It's truly alarming that this has happened," he told The Associated Press by telephone from Mali's capital, Bamako, on Monday. "They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people."
The mayor said Monday that the radical Islamists had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute — a library rich with historical documents — in an act of retaliation before they fled late last week.
Timbuktu, long a hub of Islamic learning, is also home to some 20,000 manuscripts, some dating back as far as the 12th century. Owners have succeeded in removing some of the manuscripts from Timbuktu to save them, while others have been carefully hidden away from the Islamists.
The destructions recall tactics used by the Taliban in 2001 when they dynamited a pair of giant Buddhas carved into a mountain in Bamiyan province. Around the same time, the Taliban also rampaged through the national museum, smashing any art depicting the human form, considered idolatrous under their hardline interpretation of Islam. In all, they destroyed about 2,500 statues.