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French and Malian troops seize Timbuktu

French and Malian troops seized control of the fabled city of Timbuktu on Monday, a bastion of radical Islamists occupying northern Mali since last April, military and government sources said.

French and Malian troops seize Timbuktu
File photo from Jan 16. French soldiers stand on an armoured vehicle as they leave the Malian capital Bamako. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

"The Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the town of Timbuktu. Everything is under control," a colonel in the Malian army said on condition of anonymity.

Timbuktu Mayor Halley Ousmane, who is in the capital Bamako, confirmed that his town had "fallen into the hands of the French and Malians".

The French-led troops surrounded the ancient desert city by Monday morning, sending ground troops in to seize the airport while paratroopers swooped in to block Islamists from fleeing, with back-up from combat helicopters.

However before the armies arrived, the Islamists reportedly torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts. The extent of the damage to the centuries-old documents was not known.

The Ahmed Baba Centre was built with funds donated from South Africa and opened in 2009 to house the documents, seen as critical to Africa's history.

Shamil Jeppie of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town said he had no news from the ground but believed some of the most important documents may have been smuggled out or hidden in recent months.

"I've heard from reliable sources on the ground that the private libraries took good care of hiding or taking out their stuff," Jeppie said.

"The only redeeming thing I can say for the Ahmed Baba, the official state library, is that they managed to take out their hard drives with the digitised copies on. That was within the first month of the crisis."

He said the library was "a very important cultural treasure for Africa and for humanity".

"We have so precious little written sources for African history and here we have a rich heritage," he said, adding that some sources dated back to the 14th century.

"These are serious collections, substantial and serious bodies of material."

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WAR

French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron

French forces "tortured and murdered" Algerian freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel during his country's war for independence, President Emmanuel Macron admitted on Tuesday, officially reappraising a death that was covered up as a suicide.

French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron
Malika, the widow of Ali Boumendjel, pictured in 2001. Photo: Stefan Fferberg/AFP

Macron made the admission “in the name of France” during a meeting with Boumendjel’s grandchildren.

The move comes after Macron in January refused to issue an official apology for abuses committed during the occupation of Algeria – instead, he agreed to form a “truth commission” as recommended by a report commissioned by the government to shed light on France’s colonial past.

Atrocities committed by both sides during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence continue to strain relations between the countries.

Boumendjel, a nationalist and lawyer, was arrested during the battle of Algiers by the French army, “placed incommunicado, tortured, and then killed on 23 March 1957,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

“Ali Boumendjel did not commit suicide. He was tortured and then killed,” Macron told Boumendjel’s grandchildren, according to the statement.

It is not the first time the real cause of death was acknowledged.

In 2000, the former head of French intelligence in Algiers Paul Aussaresses confessed to ordering Boumendjel’s death and disguising the murder as a suicide, according to the statement.

It added that Macron on Tuesday had also reiterated his desire to give families the opportunity to find out the truth about this chapter of history.

Last month, Boumendjel’s niece Fadela Boumendjel-Chitour denounced what she called the “devastating” lie the French state had told about her uncle.

French historian Benjamin Stora, who wrote the government-commissioned report, has said there is a “never-ending memory war” between the two countries.

The report has been described by the Algerian government as “not objective” and falling “below expectations.”

During his 2017 election campaign, Macron – the first president born after the colonial period – declared that the occupation of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

He has since said there was “no question of showing repentance” or of “presenting an apology” for abuses committed in the North African country.

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