Hundreds of Malians looted Arab-owned shops yesterday in Mali's fabled Timbuktu, newly freed from Islamists, as global donors pledged more than US$455 million for a French-led drive to rout the radicals from the north.
Life in the ancient desert city taken from Islamist control on Monday started returning to normal as soldiers patrolled its dusty streets, but soon large crowds began pillaging.
They plundered stores they said belonged to Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians who they accuse of supporting the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists during their 10-month rule over the ancient centre of Islamic learning.
The looters took everything from arms and military communications equipment to televisions, food and furniture, emptying shops in minutes.
Malian soldiers eventually put an end to the looting.
"We will not let people pillage. But it is true that weapons were found in some shops," an officer said on condition of anonymity.
African leaders and international officials, meanwhile, pledged the money at a donor conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for military operations and humanitarian aid.
"I am glad to report that the overall amount that was pledged here reached the amount of US$455.53 million," African Union peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said at the AU headquarters.
A woeful lack of cash and logistical resources has hampered deployment of nearly 6,000 west African troops under the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA), which is expected to take over the offensive from the French army.
So far, 2,000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger, many of them Chad soldiers who are independent from the AFISMA force. The bulk of fighting has been by some 2,900 French troops.
French and Malian troops who arrived in Timbuktu were welcomed by thousands of residents pouring out of its narrow, mud-walled streets.
"Timbuktu has fallen," the city's mayor, Halle Ousmane Cisse, said in Bamako, where he has been in exile since Islamist militants took over the city 10 months ago.
French paratroopers on Monday secured Timbuktu's airport and main roads.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was a little more cautious than the Timbuktu mayor, saying in a television interview: "French and Malian forces are liberating the city. It's not completely finished, but it's well on its way."
The French president, Francois Hollande, suggested that French troops might soon stop their northward advance, leaving it to African soldiers to pursue the militants.
"We are winning this battle," Hollande said. "When I say, 'we', this is the Malian army, this is the Africans, supported by the French."
He continued: "Now, the Africans can take over."
But there were concerns about the fate of Timbuktu's trove of historical treasures. Cisse said someone had burned books at one of the most important libraries in a city famous for its thousands of well-preserved handwritten manuscripts dating as far back as the 13th century.
The city's libraries, along with tombs of hundreds of Sufi saints, have made it one of the most important historical sites in Africa. Islamists say the practice of venerating saints is un-Islamic.
Agence France-Presse, The New York Times