Timbuktu residents say 'Thank you God' that rebel Islamists are gone

Under watch of French soldiers, inhabitants of the ancient crossroads city turn on the radio, and start to breathe the freer air.

French troops aboard a tank are greeted by the population as they arrive in Timbuktu January 28.

A leaflet listing the regulations for women under militant Islamic rule now lies in dirt here at the tribunal in Timbuktu. Rule No. 1: The veil should cover the entire body. Rule No. 4: The veil cannot be colored. And Rule No. 8: The woman should not perfume herself after putting on the all-enveloping fabric.

Several days after French special forces parachuted in and liberated this storied city, there is a growing sense of freedom. In a number of houses situated across from where the rebels held their harsh religious tribunals, many of the girls under 10 are still wearing the head covering.

"It is out of fear of the Islamists that they still wear this, says Diahara Adjanga, the mother of one girl. "They hit everyone, even children."

The rebels seized control of Timbuktu and the other northern provincial capitals of Gao and Kidal last April. During the nearly 10 months of their rule, the Al Qaeda-linked extremists imposed harsh laws for women and publicly whipped those who went in public without veils.

Across northern Mali, a couple accused of adultery was stoned to death and hands of those accused of being thieves were amputated in actions reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The French military launched an intervention to oust the Islamists from power in northern Mali on Jan. 11 and rapidly forced their retreats from the major towns in less than three weeks' time.

Fatouma Traore, 21, remembers one commander who was especially brutal to the women in Timbuktu.

"We don't want the army to catch him. It's the women who want to arrest him," she says, hoisting her one-year-old niece on a hip and saying, "We even bought a veil for this baby."

Timbuktu still looks mostly deserted, four days after it was liberated from Islamist rule.

The electricity and the phone networks remain cut. At night, the only illumination is the light given off by people's cell phones and the flashlights they have inside shops and hotels.

At the entrance to the town, there is a single checkpoint manned by a few Malian soldiers who flag down entering cars. Each car that is allowed to enter the city at night is signaled by a warning shot fired into the air.

A French armored personnel carrier today stood sentinel in the middle of the city. In the market, over a dozen shops owned by the city's Arab population have been gutted, pillaged by the population because the town's Arab citizens were suspected of having been allied with the Islamists.

Some fear the rebels will try to stage new attacks as the French leave. On Thursday, the Malian military said four soldiers were killed and five others wounded by a land mine on the road to Gao, fueling such fears.

Modibo Traore said the deaths took place in Gossi, a city that had been under rebel control until recently.

However, Moussa Traore, a 26-year-old teacher in Timbuktu, said the sense of freedom already is overwhelming despite the uncertainty.

"We were totally deprived of our liberty. We couldn't listen to music, we couldn't play soccer. We couldn't wear the clothes we wanted. We couldn't hang out with the girls we liked," he said. "Now we can do everything — we can listen to music, we can kick a ball, we can flirt. All I can do is say: Thank you God."

Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Sevare, Mali contributed to this report.

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