Last updated: February 20. 2013 4:02AM - 144 Views

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SEVARE, Mali — Backed by French helicopters and paratroopers, Malian soldiers entered the fabled city of Timbuktu on Monday after al-Qaida militants who ruled by fear for nearly 10 months fled into the desert, setting fire to a library with thousands of manuscripts dating to the Middle Ages.

French Col. Thierry Burkhard said there had been no combat with the Islamists but that the French and Malian forces did not yet control the town.

Still, there was celebration among the thousands of Timbuktu residents who fled the city rather than live under strict and pitiless Islamic rule and the dire poverty that worsened after tourism was destroyed.

Timbuktu, a city of mud-walled buildings and 50,000 people, was for centuries a seat of Islamic learning and a major trading center along the North African caravan routes. In Europe, legend had it that it was a city of gold. Today, its name is synonymous with the ends of the earth.

It has been home to about 20,000 irreplaceable manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century. Many were destroyed in the blaze set in recent days in an act of vengeance by the Islamists before they withdrew.

Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called the arson a desecration to humanity.

These manuscripts are irreplaceable. They have the wisdom of the ages, and it's the most important find since the Dead Sea Scrolls, he said.

The militants seized Timbuktu last April and began imposing strict religious law across northern Mali, carrying out amputations and public executions. Women could be whipped for going out in public without wearing veils, while men could be lashed for having cigarettes.

The French have said Mali's military must finish the job of securing Timbuktu, but the Malians have fared poorly in combat, often retreating in panic in the face of well-armed, battle-hardened Islamists.

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