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TIMBUKTU

Troops patrol Timbuktu after hero’s welcome

French and Malian forces patrolled Timbuktu on Tuesday after they seized Mali's fabled desert city as part of a lightening advance against the Islamists controlling the country's vast north.

Troops patrol Timbuktu after hero's welcome
A handout photo shows a French soldier standing on a armoured vehicle at the Timbuktu airport. Photo: AFP /ECPAD/ Arnaud Roine

As residents cheered the arriving troops, the city's mayor denounced what he called a crime against culture, saying that Islamists fleeing the French-led offensive had torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts.

Financial aid meanwhile was beginning to flow into the troubled region.

On Tuesday, Japan announced it would give an extra $120 million to help stabilise Africa's Sahel region, days after 10 Japanese nationals were killed
in the Algerian hostage siege.

The announcement came just hours before a donor conference for the Mali mission opened at African Union headquarters in Ethiopia.

Already on Monday the International Monetary Fund agreed to provide an $18.4 million emergency loan to Mali.

The recapture of Timbuktu came 18 days after France, with the support of Malian troops, launched an offensive against radical Islamists who seized control of the country's north 10 months ago following a coup in Bamako.

The Islamist fighters, whose move into the government-controlled south sparked the foreign intervention, have retreated in the face of the advance
and retain control over just one stronghold: the town of Kidal in the desert hills of the far north, 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.

Asked if French troops would press on to try to force the Islamists out of the mountainous north of the country, French President Francois Hollande said: "Now the Africans can take over…

"We know that this is the most difficult part because the terrorists are hidden there and can still carry out extremely dangerous operations, for neighbouring countries and Mali," he said from Paris.

Residents of Timbuktu, an ancient city on the edge of the Sahara desert, erupted in joy as French and Malian troops drove in on Monday. "Mali, Mali, Mali," they shouted, as they waved French and Malian flags.

"There were no shots fired, no blood spilt. 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 left several days ago, as French air strikes rained down on their bases. The electricity and the phone networks were both out of action.

'A real cultural crime'

As the Franco-Malian force approached the city, however, reports emerged that a building housing tens of thousands of centuries-old Muslim and Greek manuscripts had been set on fire.

Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, speaking from the capital Bamako, confirmed accounts of the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research.

"It's a real cultural crime," he said.

Set up in 1973, the centre housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts, according to Mali's culture ministry.

Timbuktu was for centuries a cosmopolitan city and a centre of Islamic learning.

Radical Islamists seized it in April 2012 as they took control of Mali's desert north in the chaos that followed a military coup last March.

They forced women in Timbuktu 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.

On Monday however, residents of the city were celebrating their new-found freedom.

Lahlia Garba, a woman in her fifties, expressed relief that the hard-line Islamists had been forced out.

"I had to wear a burqa, gloves and cover everything," she said.

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.
 

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CULTURE

Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.

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