By Pascal Fletcher
DAKAR (Reuters) - The majority of Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts appear to be safe and unharmed after the Saharan city's 10-month occupation by Islamist rebel fighters, experts said on Wednesday, rejecting some media reports of their widespread destruction.
Denying accounts that told of tens of thousands of priceless papers being burned or stolen by the fleeing rebels, they said the bulk of the Timbuktu texts had been safely hidden well before the city's liberation by French forces on Sunday.
Brittle, written in ornate calligraphy, and ranging from scholarly treatises to old commercial invoices, the Timbuktu texts represent a compendium of human knowledge on everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics. Some experts compare them in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
News that they were mostly safe, from people directly involved with conservation of the texts, was a relief to the world's cultural community, which had been dismayed by the prospect of a large-scale loss.
A day after French and Malian troops retook Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site and ancient seat of Islamic learning, from Islamist insurgent occupiers, the city's mayor reported the rebels had set fire to a major manuscript library.
But South African and Malian experts said that while up to 2,000 manuscripts may have been lost at the ransacked South African-funded Ahmed Baba Institute, most of some 300,000 texts existing in and around Timbuktu were believed to be safe.
"I can say that the vast majority of the collections appear from our reports not to have been destroyed, damaged or harmed in any way," Cape Town University's Professor Shamil Jeppie, an expert on the Saharan city's manuscripts, told Reuters.
A Malian scholar also responsible for the preservation of the manuscripts, who asked not to be named, told Reuters by phone from Bamako that 95 percent were "safe and sound".
"The initial impression was tens of thousands of manuscripts had been destroyed, looted and in general disappeared for us as researchers and for humanity. The situation now is very different, so we're very relieved," Jeppie told Reuters.
The two sources said that soon after Tuareg rebels swept into Timbuktu on April 1 in a revolt later hijacked by sharia-observing Islamist radicals, curators and collectors of the manuscripts had started hiding the texts away for safety.
"They shipped them out and distributed them around," Jeppie said. The Malian source said the manuscripts were concealed "a little bit everywhere", but he declined to give details.
"TREASURE OF LEARNING"
It would not be the first time that Timbuktu's inhabitants have had to protect their city's manuscripts from intruders.
Some texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and French colonialists.
The Ahmed Baba Institute, the state library the mayor said was torched, is named after a Timbuktu-born contemporary of William Shakespeare and housed more than 20,000 scripts.
Television footage this week from Timbuktu showed a pile of ashes in one of the rooms of the institute, a partnership between South Africa and Mali that opened in 2009.
But the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at Cape Town University's Institute for Humanities in Africa, where Jeppie works, said on its website the majority of the centre's texts were still stored in a building the other side of town.
"A limited number of items have been damaged or stolen ... but from all our local sources ... there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection," it said.
Some of the manuscripts that constitute Timbuktu's "treasure of learning" date back to the 13th century and are part of a heritage that includes the Sankore, Sidi Yahia and Djingarei-ber mosques - the latter built from mud bricks and wood in 1325.
Jeppie said the young AK-47-carrying Islamists who had applied sharia law, beating and stoning thieves and adulterers, during their occupation of Timbuktu were unlikely to have appreciated the significance of the texts.
But he added some may have carried off manuscripts to try to sell them, either in Mauritania or even in Qatar, accused by some French politicians and media of supporting Mali's rebels.
Qatar has emphatically denied supported the rebels.
Provoking outrage, the militants - who follow a more radical Salafist brand of Islam - destroyed dozens of ancient shrines in Timbuktu sacred to Sufi Muslims, condemning them as idolatrous.
Timbuktu was liberated by French and Malian forces as part of a rapid French-led military offensive launched on January 11 that has driven the rebels of the Islamist alliance occupying the north back into the northeastern desert and mountains.
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alison Williams)