JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Malian scholars, librarians and ordinary citizens in the rebel-occupied city of Timbuktu are hiding away priceless ancient manuscripts to prevent them from being damaged or looted, a South African academic in contact with them said.
Cape Town University's Professor Shamil Jeppie said he was in daily contact with curators and private owners safeguarding tens of thousands of historic texts in Timbuktu, the fabled desert trading town and seat of Islamic learning overrun by Tuareg-led rebels on April 1.
Jeppie, involved in an internationally-funded initiative to preserve Timbuktu's "treasure of learning", told Reuters there had been no major losses so far to the main state and private manuscript collections, but he feared for the future.
"We hope it stays like this," he said, adding that Timbuktu was occupied by two main rival rebel groups: the "nationalists' of the MNLA movement who have declared an independent Tuareg homeland in northern Mali and are holding the city's airport, and the Islamists of the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) group who had occupied the main military barracks.
"I have no faith in the rebels. They may have an educated leadership, but they are sending in footsoldiers who are illiterate and if they want something they will take it ... They won't have any respect for paper culture," Jeppie said.
He said that since the April 1 rebel occupation, armed fighters had stolen vehicles from the Ahmed Baba Institute, the Malian state library named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare that houses more than 20,000 ancient scholarly manuscripts.
But the gun-toting fighters did not enter the rooms and underground vaults where the priceless texts were stored at the library's new South African-funded building.
"The new building was defended by the public ... they stood in front of the gates," Jeppie said, repeating accounts given to him.
At the institute's old building in another part of town, rebels ransacked the director's office, looting computers and other equipment, he added. But from the information he had received, no valuable manuscripts had disappeared.
Jeppie added he was hearing that major private owners of manuscript collections were either hiding or packing their texts away for protection or making preparations to try to smuggle them out, to the capital Bamako or to neighbouring countries like Niger.
The 8,000-manuscript Fondo Kati collection, which has received funds from Spain because of its links to the Arab heritage in Andalusia, was being "hastily transferred to boxes" for safe-keeping, he said.
Another major private library, the Haidara collection, was also safe. "(Owner) Abdul Kader Haidara just sent me a one-line email saying 'Everything is OK'," Jeppie said.
The associate professor at Cape Town University's Institute for Humanities in Africa said that in Timbuktu and its surrounding areas, there were at least 24 significant private manuscript collections.
Estimates for the total number of historic documents in the city, some of them from the 13th century, range from 150,000 to five times that number.
Timbuktu has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988 and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has appealed to the rebels to spare "Timbuktu's outstanding earthen architectural wonders". These include the Sankore, Sidi Yahia and Djingarei-ber mosques - the latter Timbuktu's oldest, built from mud bricks and wood in 1325 - and the famous manuscript libraries.
Some texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by proud Malian families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and then French colonialists. Now many fear the rampaging rebels, who carry AK-47s instead of muskets, lances and swords.
Brittle, written in ornate calligraphy, and ranging from scholarly treatises to old commercial invoices, the documents represent a compendium of learning on everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics. Some experts compare them in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Jeppie said he was concerned the Tuareg rebel occupation, which largely cuts off Timbuktu from the south of Mali, would plunge the ancient city back into the desert-surrounded isolation in which it had lived for centuries in the past.
"I think it's catastrophic, because it can have long-term economic effects," he said.
Power outages already occurring in the city would affect the special air conditioning required to better preserve the oldest crumbling manuscripts. Also, owners might be tempted to sell their texts to purchase essential supplies to live.
"Apparently nobody is in charge," said Michael Covitt, founder of the Malian Manuscript Foundation and producer of the documentary film "333" that presents the ancient Timbuktu texts as a universal formula of "peace, tolerance and cultural diversity" for a conflict-ravaged world.
Timbuktu is called the "City of 333 Saints" after the revered Sufi imans, sheiks and scholars buried there.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)