In this photo taken on March 16, 2004, crumbling ancient Islamic manuscripts belonging to 48-year old Fatama Bocar Sambala, above, are shown in her mud-walled house in Timbuktu, Mali.

Bamako - A Timbuktu library housing a collection of priceless ancient manuscripts, funded by South Africa, has been torched by Islamist rebels, according to Halle Ousmane Cisse, mayor of the Mali town.

The rebels apparently torched the Ahmed Baba Institute and other buildings on Saturday as they fled from French and Malian forces.

“They burned the Ahmed Baba Institute. It’s a catastrophe - for Timbuktu and all humanity,” Cisse said.

Ahmed Baba, who was born in 1564 and died in 1627, is regarded as Timbuktu’s most famous scholar and is known to have authored between 50 and 60 texts.

The institute housed more than 20 000 manuscripts on subjects ranging from theology, biology, medicine, and astronomy to midwifery - one dating back to the 13th century.

South Africa’s involvement with the manuscripts came about when then-President Thabo Mbeki visited the ancient city in 2001.

He was impressed by the manuscripts at the institute and the work of the Malian authorities in collecting them, but observed that a lack of resources hampered the proper conservation of the documents.

Mbeki pledged South Africa’s support to preserve some of Africa’s most prized artefacts, which the world would be able to share.

And so the South African-Mali Project: Timbuktu Manuscripts was created, a South African presidential initiative endorsed by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) as its first cultural project.

The new Ahmed Baba Institute was officially opened in 2009.

Cisse said the al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels, who had occupied the library months ago, set fire to the building about three days ago as French and Malian forces were pushing north.

The mayor was informed by a municipal official who witnessed the attack and then fled the town.

The rebels also torched the town hall and the home of a Timbuktu politician and shot dead a youth who showed his joy at the arrival of the forces by shouting “Long live France”, Cisse said.

Shamil Jeppie, director of UCT’s Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, said he had not received confirmation of the library’s fate and had struggled to reach anyone in the town.

He said the mayor of Timbuktu was about 1 000km away.

“We don’t know where the information came from. There’s been no statement from the military who took over the city.”

He said it made sense that the rebels would have destroyed the new building, out of “revenge or spite”.

“These are angry people. They must have done something to the new building.”

Jeppie said the documents were “invaluable for the history of the region. Such a loss.”

He said about half the documents had been digitised but that could never replace handling original copies.

Jeppie last visited the ancient town in 2010 and had been unable to visit again because of the violence.

Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Clayson Monyela did not respond to a request for comment. - Cape Times