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Most Timbuktu ancient texts saved: curator

Most of the priceless ancient books and manuscripts housed in a Timbuktu centre were smuggled away before Islamists overran the city last year, an associate curator told AFP Wednesday.

“A vast majority was saved… more than 90 percent,” said Shamil Jeppie, Tombouctou Manuscripts Project director at the University of Cape Town.

They were moved during the early months of the insurgency in northern Mali, which has seen armed Islamist groups destroy ancient shrines and tombs in Timbuktu which they consider violate Islamic law.

Residents charged that Islamists had burnt priceless ancient books and manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research as they fled a French-led offensive last week.

Jeppie said Wednesday that more than 20,000 manuscripts had been moved out of the South African-sponsored centre by May last year and hidden away in the capital Bamako and elsewhere in Timbuktu.

It was not immediately clear how many manuscripts there are in the entire town.

“Archivists and librarians associated with the Ahmed Baba library in fact over the months of the occupation worked to take the manuscripts out, to conserve them and hide them in Bamako,” Jeppie said.

It is not exactly clear where in Bamako the documents are being kept, but Jeppie said he suspects they could be at the University of Bamako where the centre has been given temporary shelter.

He cited the director of the centre as saying 25,090 items of handwritten manuscripts — some dating back to the 14th century — were safely taken out of the library.

The only fear is that some of the delicate manuscripts could have been damaged during the move from Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to the custodian of the Ahmed Baba centre, the contents of the building were ravaged by Islamists who burnt everything that remained there in a final act of destruction before fleeing Timbuktu.

The centre was initiated by South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki and built with donated funds.