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Defiant residents of Timbuktu celebrate end of Islamist rule

Crowds greeting the French President Francois Hollande Photo: Reuters

I am at the very end of the earth. The legendary city of Timbuktu. A fabled settlement in the sand on the edge of the Sahara.

As a centre of intellectual richness it has attracted tourists who come to see its prized collection of thirteenth century manuscripts and gaze at architectural masterpieces. As one of the most remote cities in the world, some visitors travel here simply to say that they have been.

Others are enticed by the prospect of riding camels into the desert. But it's enchanting qualities are famous. Less well known, but just as mesmerising, is the incredible spirit of its people, demonstrated during ten months of Islamist rule.

It is typified by Abdoulhamid Kounta, a scholar who was so determined to protect the ancient manuscripts that he devised a plot to have some of them sent deep into the Sahara, on the back of a camel, then buried in the sand.

He knew that the militants wanted to destroy them because they saw it as a way of punishing the western tourists who travelled to see them. The treasured papers are now being returned to him in Samsonite briefcases.

Then there's Abdullah Cisse, the quick-thinking church watchman who might have become one of the last victims of the jihadist mob before they fled the town. He refused to let them torch the church so risked a brutal death by lying to the militants. He told them that a French plane had spotted the group - they had to run, and they did.

The Islamists pushed this ancient city even further into the past. But the way that ordinary people responded has shown that Timbuktu's greatness lies not only in its structures or scholarship but in the determination of its people.

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