SEVARE, Mali — Backed by French helicopters and paratroopers, Malian soldiers entered the fabled city of Timbuktu on Monday after al-Qaida-linked militants who ruled the outpost for nearly 10 months fled into the desert, setting fire to a library that held thousands of manuscripts dating to the Middle Ages.
French Col. Thierry Burkhard, chief military spokesman in Paris, said that there had been no combat with the Islamists but that the French and Malian forces did not yet control the town.
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 that carried slaves, gold and salt.
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.
Just over two weeks after the French began their military intervention in Mali to counter the militant Islamists, French and Malian forces arrived in Timbuktu overnight, the French military spokesman said.
Fighting alongside Malian and African forces, the French captured another northern town, Gao, on Saturday, according to France's Defense Ministry. Taking full control of Timbuktu would make Kidal the last northern city the rebels control.