With Timbuktu retaken, France signals pullback

Segou, Mali - French paratroopers arrived in the ancient desert oasis of Timbuktu on Monday, securing its airport and main roads as thousands of residents poured out of its narrow, mud-walled streets to greet French and Malian troops, waving the two countries' flags, with whoops, cheers and shouts.

"Timbuktu has fallen," said the city's mayor, Halle Ousmane Cisse, in a telephone interview from the capital, Bamako, where he has been in exile since the Islamist militants took over the city 10 months ago. He said he planned to return to his city Tuesday.

The rapid advance to Timbuktu, a day after French and African troops took firm control of the former rebel stronghold of Gao, may spell the beginning of the end of France's major involvement in the conflict here.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was a little more cautious than the mayor in his assessment of the situation in Timbuktu on Monday evening, saying on television station TF1: "French and Malian forces are liberating the city. It's not completely finished, but it's well on its way."

The French president, Francois Hollande, suggested Monday that French troops might soon stop their northward advance, leaving it to African soldiers to pursue the militants into their redoubts in the desert north.

"We are winning this battle," Hollande said in televised remarks. "When I say, 'We,' this is the Malian army, this is the Africans, supported by the French."

African troops have been trickling into Mali over the last few days from neighboring states, part of what is expected to be a 5,000-member force intended to restore the northern half of the country to government control.

A European Union mission to train several thousand Malian soldiers has yet to begin, however, and any extensive combat operations led by African troops are not expected until August or September, after the brief rainy season.

There were concerns about the fate of Timbuktu's trove of historical treasures. Cisse said someone had burned books at one of the most important libraries in a city famous for its thousands of well-preserved handwritten manuscripts dating as far back as the 13th century.

The city's libraries, along with its mud architecture and the tombs of hundreds of Sufi saints, have made it one of the most important historical sites in Africa. Islamists were said to have smashed many of the city's tombs, saying that the ancient practice of venerating saints was un-Islamic.

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