France Literally Went All the Way to Timbuktu to Stop the Malian Rebels

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People in northern Mali celebrated on Sunday night after French troops won a series of key victories over the Islamist rebels who've been terrorizing the region for weeks. Among the towns liberated is the fabled village of Timbuktu, the ancient Saharan trading town that is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but is also the capital of the Timbuktu region. Before being taken by the Islamist rebels ten months ago, it was also undergoing a massive renovation project, the type of project that does not mix well with urban warfare. The French forces entered the town with little resistance, however, but expect it will take some time to clear out the town completely. "Timbuktu is delicate, you can't just go in like that," said one local. For now, the French have control over the airport and plan to start securing the labyrinth of streets on Monday morning.

Taking Timbuktu might've been cause enough for celebration, but the French made progress on a number of fronts over the weekend, most significantly in the city of Gao. The oppressive months-long occupation of Gao ended on Sunday when French troops marched into town. As the most populous town in the north, Gao represents a major victory for the French troops, one that was well received by the people. Local residents who had been prohibited from listen to music and smoking cigarettes propped speakers up in their windows and lit up in the streets. "Everyone is in the streets," a Gao resident told The New York Times, said in a telephone interview. "It is like a party. There is music. There are drums. It's freedom."

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It'll take a little bit of time before the big victory parade, and locals are keeping their guard up. This weekend does show that France's troop surge in the region -- an effort that United States is assisting -- is working. France has committed warplanes and 2,500 troops to helping its former colony battle the rebels who have connections with Al Qaeda. As France helps liberate the city's in the north of Mali, where the rebellion started, many worry that the next step will be a long and brutal battle in the desert. "No-one believes the rebels will give up without resisting," a refugee from Timbuktu said over the weekend. "They may be regrouping for an attack, there is fear of a guerrilla war." As we Americans are well aware, guerrilla wars in the desert are not much fun.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.