Islamist extremists damaged or stole only a limited number of manuscripts in Timbuktu in Mali before they fled the fabled desert city, a South African university said Wednesday.
People in the north Malian city who have knowledge of the documents reported that there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection, said the University of Cape Town, which helped fund a state-of-the-art library to house manuscripts.
"The custodians of the libraries worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials," said the university. Islamist rebels have been in control of Timbuktu for nearly 10 months.
The university said that a report from Britain's Sky News that 25,000 manuscripts had been burned was false. Other news reports quoted the city mayor, who wasn't in the city, saying manuscripts had been destroyed, the university said.
With its Islamic treasures and centuries-old mud-walled buildings including an iconic mosque, Timbuktu is a U.N.-designated World Heritage Site.
Most of the manuscripts, which are as many as 900 years old, were gathered between the 1980s and 2000 from all over Mali for the Ahmad Baba Institute for Higher Learning and Islamic Research, which moved into its new home in 2009.
Media reports said that the Ahmad Baba Institute had been ransacked by the militants. But the university said a senior researcher at the institute, Mohamed Diagayete, said the majority of the manuscripts were stored in an older building elsewhere in the city.
The manuscripts cover subjects from science, astrology and medicine to history, theology, grammar and geography. They date back to the late 12th century, the start of a 300-year golden age for Timbuktu as a spiritual and intellectual capital for the propagation of Islam.
Islamist extremists decimated tourism in 2011 when three Europeans were taken hostage from a Timbuktu restaurant in November that year. In April 2012, Tuareg nationalist rebels seized control of Timbuktu from government troops. A day later Islamist insurgents moved into the city. They banned music, insisted women cover themselves and began carrying out public executions.
On Tuesday, Timbuktu was in control of French and Malian troops, including some 250 French paratroopers dropped from the sky. The extremists melted into the desert without firing a shot. Townspeople were jubilant at the city's liberation from intolerant Islamist extremists.
"The protection of the cultural and intellectual heritage of this region needs to be enhanced and promoted," the university said. "The abandonment of the security of Timbuktu nine months ago, the flight of archivists and researchers, and the closure of libraries should not be repeated."
In Paris, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said that the U.N. cultural agency will do everything possible to safeguard and rebuild Mali's cultural heritage.
"In times of turmoil, the risks of illicit trafficking of cultural objects are at the highest, with Mali's renowned ancient manuscripts being the most vulnerable," Bokova said.
"We will mobilize all our expertise and resources to help safeguard and preserve the ancient manuscripts that testify to the region's glorious past as a major center of Islamic learning."