|Warning over Mali military abuses amid French liberation claims
French-led forces received a hero's welcome as they entered Mali's fabled desert city of Timbuktu in an unchallenged advance north.
Bust as the French political establishment basked in the claimed success, the International Criminal Court warned Mali over reports of abuses by its army. The French intervention is backed by the US and EU.
Meanwhile, in the central Mali town of Konna, where the French troops began their offensive, local people showed journalists the graves of civilians killed in the air strikes.
But Konna's deputy mayor Demba Samouka insisted there was no precise death toll available.
Reports also said the Islamists have torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu.
Residents of the ancient city on the edge of the Sahara desert erupted in joy as French and Malian troops entered yesterday, an AFP correspondent reported.
They waved French and Malian flags and shouted “Mali, Mali, Mali.’’
As the soldiers received a rapturous welcome, in Paris French President Francois Hollande declared: “We are winning in Mali.'' And by “we,’’ he added, he meant the Malian army, the Africans supported by the French.
“There were no shots fired, no blood split. Not even passive resistance with traps,’’ Colonel Frederic Gout, head of French helicopter operations at the city, told AFP.
Residents said many of the Islamist occupiers had fled several days ago, as French air strikes rained down on their bases across the north.
A French military source however spoke of fears they could have dotted the city with mines.
Malian security and military sources reported that a building housing tens of thousands of manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece had been set on fire. Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, speaking from the capital Bamako, confirmed reports of the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, denouncing what he called a crime against culture.
The center housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali's culture ministry. It was set up in 1973 and in 2009 a new building was opened following an agreement with South Africa to protect the manuscripts as African heritage.
Timbuktu was for centuries a cosmopolitan city and a center of Islamic learning.
Radical Islamists seized the city in April 2012.
Under the Islamists, women in Timbuktu were forced to wear veils, and those judged to have violated their strict version of Islamic law were whipped and stoned.
The militants also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.
Yesterday’s, residents of the city were celebrating their new-found freedom.
Lahlia Garba, a woman in her 50s, expressed her relief that the hard-line Islamists had been forced out.
“I had to wear a burqa, gloves and cover everything,’’ she said.
Hama Cisse, another Timbuktu resident, exclaimed: “We are independent again! We were held hostage for 10 months but it seemed like 10 years.’’
The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda warned Mali over reports its army had committed abuses.
Rights groups and journalists have reported allegations that Malian troops have executed suspects on the spot in towns recaptured during the offensive.
“All those alleged to be responsible for serious crimes in Mali must be held accountable,’’ he warned.
Yesterday’s advance into Timbuktu, 1,000 kilometers north of Bamako, came 18 days after the French launched their offensive to wrest the vast desert north from the Islamists with the support of Malian troops.
Only one Islamist stronghold remains to be retaken: the town of Kidal in the desert hills of the far north, 1,500 km northeast of the capital.
France now has 2,900 soldiers in Mali.
Nearly 8,000 African troops from Chad and the west African bloc ECOWAS are expected to take over from them, but their deployment has been slow, with 2,700 split between Mali and Niger.
The International Monetary Fund agreed on Monday to provide an US$18.4 million emergency loan to Mali. That is likely to persuade other donors, who cut off aid following the March 2012 coup, to release more funds.