SEVARE, Mali -- Backed by French helicopters and paratroopers, Malian soldiers entered the fabled city of Timbuktu yesterday after al-Qaida-linked militants who ruled the outpost by fear 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 Burk-hard, 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.

Still, there was celebration among the thousands of Timbuktu residents who fled the city rather than live under strict and pitiless Islamic rule and the dire poverty that worsened after the tourist industry was destroyed.

"In the heart of people from northern Mali, it's a relief -- freedom finally," said Cheick Sormoye, a Timbuktu resident who fled to Bamako, the capital.

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. In Europe, legend had it that it was a city of gold.

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It has been home to some 20,000 irreplaceable manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century. It was not immediately known how many were destroyed in the blaze that was set in recent days in an act of vengeance by the Islamists before they withdrew.

Michael Covitt, chairman of the Malian Manuscript Foundation, called the arson a "desecration to humanity."

-- AP