As soon as I heard that  the French army was close to capturing the city of Timbuktu, in its attempt to recapture Northern Mali in conjunction with the newly emboldened soldiers of the Bamako Government, my heart jumped.
For I knew instinctively that the end had come for the thousands of ancient manuscripts, some dating to the 13th century AD and earlier, that the population of Timbuktu had miraculously been able to preserve over the centuries. Neither the heat of the desert, nor fierce sandstorms; neither war nor famine; neither pestilence nor drought, had succeded in separating the people of Timbuktu from their treasured heritage of ancient learning.
But now, Islamist jihadists, pursued by a French army on a holy war of its own, had chosen to teach the world that it is not all wars that can be fought with fire and brimstone; with jet bombers and armoured personnel carriers.The ‘My Lai’ disaster, which occurred during the American war against Vietnam, should have taught the French the lesson that there are times in war when, if one was not careful, one might have to “destroy” a place “in oder to save it” (as the memorable American oxymoron of the time put it).
And it is not as if the French didn’t know what was at stake in Timbuktu. If any body of professionals could be expected to realise the implications of the French advance on Timbuktu, it should have been the French army. For there is not a grain of sand in former French West Africa – including Mali – that holds any secrets from the French army and its intelligence officers.
Yet they marched into Timbuktu like a bull in a china shop! What did they expect the jihadists to do, for heaven’s sake? I, sitting in London,was frightened enough – I should chuck modesty aside and say prescient enough — to Twitter: “It is imperative that the French should negotiate a withdrawal of the rebels from Timbuktu to save the city’s ancient manuscripts”. When I saw the triumphalist tone of the reports coming from Mali – the BBC World Service and other international media were all underlining the fact that  the populace was welcoming the French — I tweeted again: “The question is, what do the rebels do before they flee from the city of Timbuktu?”
I should have saved my breath. The damage was already done. According to the London Guardian,
Fleeing Islamist insurgents burnt two buildings containing priceless books as French-led troops approached…The insurgents retreating from the ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu … set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century, in what the town’s mayor described as a “devastating blow” to world heritage.
Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday [26 January 2013] torched two buildings where the manuscripts were being kept. They also burned down the town hall and governor’s office.
French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town’s airport. But they appear to have got there too late to save the leather-bound manuscripts, [COMMENT: who told the Guardian that the French troops wanted to “save” the maniuscripts?] which were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa’s medieval history.
“It’s true. They have burned them,” Ciffe said, in a phone interview from Mali’s capital, Bamako. “They also burned down several buildings. ..This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali’s heritage but the world’s heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world….
The manuscripts were being kept in two different locations – an old warehouse and a new South Africa-funded research centre, the Ahmed Baba Institute. Both buildings were burned down, the mayor said. Asked whether any of the manuscripts might have survived, he replied: “I don’t know.”
The manuscripts survived for centuries in Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara hidden in wooden trunks, boxes beneath the sand and caves. The majority are written in Arabic, with some in African languages, and one in Hebrew, and cover a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights. The oldest dated from 1204.
Seydo Traoré, a researcher at the Ahmed Baba Institute, who fled Timbuktu last year shortly before the rebels arrived, said only a fraction of the manuscripts had been digitised. “They cover geography, history and religion. We had one in Turkish. We don’t know what it said.”
Traoré told the Guardian that some rebels had been sleeping in the new institute where some of the manuscripts were kept. He said that they had also destroyed the shrines of more than 300 Sufi saints dotted around the city”.
I cannot believe that the French didn’t know this would happen. They just simply didn’t care. If it had been the Louvre in Paris that had come under jihadist threat, they would have flown the best psychologists from around the world to go and negotiate with the jihadists in order to try and save their treasured heritage. By the way, the Timbuktu manuscripts have been designated as a  “world heritage” by UNESCO (based n Paris!). Did the French observe UN rules about waging war on “world heritaghe” sites, when they invaded Timbuktu?  One can only imagine that they shrugged their shoulders, as they planned the Timbuktu attack, and said: “African manuscripts are kept there? Tant pis! We’ve got plenty of ‘Primitive Art in museums dotted all over |France!” 
Yet, not long ago, Le Monde newspaper, which one presumes is read by the officers in the French army,  carried a  review article  that discussed in deta\il, some of the most interesting contents of the manuscripts of Timbuktu.
In fact, according to Wikipedia,  
“Timbuktu Manuscripts was an umbrella term for a large number of manuscripts (estimates range in the hundreds of thousands) that had been preserved by private households in TimbuktuMali.. The majority of [the] manuscripts are written inArabic, but some are also in local languages, including Songhay and Tamasheq. The dates of the manuscripts range between the late 13th and the early 20th centuries (i.e. from the Islamisation of the Mali Empire until the decline of traditional education in French Sudan). Their subject matter ranges from scholarly works to short letters. The manuscripts were passed down in Timbuktu families and are mostly in poor condition. Most of the manuscripts remain unstudied and uncatalogued, and their total number is unknown, amenable only to rough estimates. A selection [of] about 160 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu and the Ahmed Baba collection were digitized by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project in the 2000s.
With the demise of Arabic education in Mali under French colonial rule, appreciation for the medieval manuscripts declined in Timbuktu, and many were being sold off.  In October 2008 one of the households was flooded, destroying 700 manuscripts.

In 1970, UNESCO founded an organization which included among its tasks [the] preservation of the manuscripts, but it went unfunded until 1977. The Timbuktu Manuscripts Project was a project of the University of Oslo running from 2000 to 2007, the goal of which was to assist in physically preserving the manuscripts, digitize them and building an electronic catalogue, and making them accessible for research. It was funded by the government of Luxembourg alongside … the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), the Ford Foundation, the Norwegian Council for Higher Education’s Programme for Development Research and Education (NUFU), and the United States Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. Among the results of the project are: reviving the ancient art of book binding and training a solid number of local specialists; devising and setting up an electronic database to catalogue the manuscripts held at the Institut des Hautes Études et de Recherche Islamique – Ahmad Baba (IHaERIAB); digitizing a large number of manuscripts held at the IHERIAB; facilitating scholarly and technical exchange with manuscript experts in Morocco and other countries;reviving HERIAB’s journal Sankoré; and publishing the splendidly illustrated book, The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu: Historic City of Islamic Africa.
The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project is a separate project run by the University of Cape Town. In a partnership with the government of South Africa, this project is the first official cultural project of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development [NEPAD].  It was founded in 2003 and is ongoing. They released a report on the project in 2008. As well as preserving the manuscripts, the Cape Town project also aims to make access to public and private libraries around Timbuktu more widely available. The project’s online database is accessible to researchers only. [COMMENT: Why, oh why,  NEPAD?]
A 2008 book about Timbuktu contains a chapter with some discussions of a few of the texts.
Digital images of thirty-two manuscripts from the private Mamma Haïdara Library are available from the United States Library of Congress; a subset of these are also accessible from the United Nations’ World Digital Library website.