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Timbuktu revels in new freedom but fears linger

A museum guard picked through ancient manuscripts, which were partially damaged by Islamist rebels before they fled Timbuktu. Most of the texts appeared to be safe.

BENOIT TESSIER /reuters

A museum guard picked through ancient manuscripts, which were partially damaged by Islamist rebels before they fled Timbuktu. Most of the texts appeared to be safe.

TIMBUKTU, Mali — A leaflet listing the regulations for women under Islamist 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. Though in houses immediately facing the Islamist tribunal, many 8- and 9-year-old girls are still wearing the head covering.

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‘‘It is out of fear of the Islamists that they still wear this,’’ Diahara Adjanga, the mother of one girl, said Thursday. “They hit everyone — even children.’’

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

Across northern Mali, the Islamists stoned to death a couple accused of adultery and amputated the hands of suspected thieves 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.

Fatouma Traore, 21, said one commander 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 so that we can kill him ourselves,’’ she said. “Even if you’re talking to your own blood brother on the stoop of your house, they hit you. Even if you are wearing the veil, and it happens to slip off, they hit you. This man, Ahmed Moussa, he made life miserable for women. Even an old grandmother if she’s not covered up, he would hit her.’’

She picks up her 1-year-old niece and hoists her on a hip. ‘‘We even bought a veil for this baby,’’ Traore said.

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 from people’s cellphones and the flashlights they have inside shops and hotels.

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

A French armored personnel carrier on Thursday 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.

Ousmane Halle, the mayor of Timbuktu, toured the city in a pickup truck on Thursday, flanked by three bodyguards. He had returned on a special flight after a temporary exile in the capital of Bamako, 620 miles southwest.

He said authorities were scouring the city for land mines, after reports that the Islamists planted explosives.

‘‘We have roped off some streets and are preventing access to suspicious buildings,’’ Halle said.

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.

In Timbuktu, French forces have been searching for land mines, including at the city’s largest mosque. The imams said Islamists had left behind piles of dirt.

Lieutenant Sarah, a spokeswoman for the French military who could only be identified by her first name in keeping with military protocol, said so far nothing had been found.

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

‘‘We can listen to music, we can kick a ball, we can flirt,’’ he said. “All I can do is say: Thank you God.’’

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