French and Malian forces are preparing an offensive on the symbolic city of Timbuktu, captured by Islamist militants last year. FRANCE 24 special correspondent Matthieu Mabin reports from the outskirts of the ancient town.
After recapturing the city of Gao on Saturday, French and Malian forced have switched their focus to Timbuktu. Early on Sunday morning, masses of heavily-armored troops arrived at the outskirts of the city, stationing themselves some 100 kilometres away from the city centre.
The French air force has laid the groundwork for an all-out offensive, using Dassault Mirage 2000s and Rafale fighter jets to destroy rebel points in the vast desert around the city. So far, the troops have experienced no form of counter-attack on the ground.
Attacking Timbuktu is a symbolic operation for Mali – overrun by Ansar Dine jihadist militants almost a year ago, the ancient city has been ravaged by its captors: its mausoleums destroyed, its people forced to obey Sharia law. The rare accounts we’ve heard depict scenes of social desecration.
Liberated villagers ‘hysterical’
When we travel through liberated villages, the residents become almost hysterical at the sight of the French and Malian tanks. They rush out of their homes with the national flag shouting “Mali!” These people are literally being liberated after experiencing the terror of Sharia law. The accounts we’ve heard are terrible: suspected thieves having their hands cut off; women forced to wear the veil; men banned from wearing long trousers.
Residents tell us that the rebels flee very quickly [when the French and Malian forces arrive], leaving behind weapons and vehicles. They dress like civilians so as not to stand out and then try to head for the border with Mauritania.