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Timbuktu Freed From Islamist Fighters


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The city of Timbuktu is free...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Mali, Mali, Mali, Mali...

INSKEEP: ...and residents cheered as French and Malian forces entered the city. Those forces swept aside Islamist rebels who'd controlled the place for months. The Islamists rule included amputations and the destroyed ancient tombs. It ended with the burning of a library housing priceless manuscripts.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been talking with the mayor of Timbuktu.


MAYOR HALLE OUSMANE CISSE: (Foreign language spoken)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: The mayor of Timbuktu, Halle Ousmane Cisse, is busy fielding calls of concern and congratulations from all over the world. He tells me that the liberation of Timbuktu - a U.N. World Heritage site - is bittersweet.

CISSE: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Sweet, because he can go home to Timbuktu, but tinged with sadness because of reports that al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants set fire to the Ahmad Baba Institute and other buildings, home to ancient texts dating back as far as the 13th century. The mayor says his colleague called over the weekend with the bad news.

CISSE: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: The mayor tells me, sorrowfully: These priceless manuscripts are my identity. They're my history. They're documents about Islam, history, geography, botany, poetry. They're close to my heart, and they belong to the whole world.

CISSE: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Halle Ousmane Cisse spent almost the entire eight to nine months of rebel occupation in Timbuktu. It was rough, he says. The Islamists treated people badly. He tells me a young man was shot dead in the street over the weekend, simply for saying Vive La France, for France's military intervention in Mali. The mayor says the jihadis - these criminals, as he calls them - put us through hell.

CISSE: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: No music, no dancing, no watching television or listening to the news, no freedom. That's no life, he says, adding that the Islamists were trying to impose their warped will on the people of Timbuktu.

French and Malian troops met no resistance as they reclaimed control of the city, entering Timbuktu proper yesterday to the delight of residents. It appears many jihadis have melted away in the vast expanse of Sahara Desert sands and dunes. Hunting them down in hostile terrain will fall to Malian, African and likely French forces.


QUIST-ARCTON: The thousands of people who were forced to flee their historic city on the banks of the River Niger are looking forward to going home. The Hamalek family, from the nomadic Tuareg ethnic group, left Timbuktu in a hurry many months ago.


QUIST-ARCTON: Cradling her four-year-old granddaughter, one of 28 displaced family members, Attina Welat Ahmed yelps with delight when she talks about the liberation of Timbuktu.

ATTINA WELAT AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: She says: We had forgotten how to smile, how to dance, how to sing. Women were frightened. They had to wear veils. Long live the Malian army. Long live France, she says.

CISSE: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: The mayor agrees. He tells me: When I get to the airport in Timbuktu, I'm going to dance with joy. I'm going to dance the forbidden dance the Islamists banned. I'm going to dance all the way from the airport into town, says Halle Ousmane Cisse. The mayor of Timbuktu says there's nothing as important as freedom.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.