PARIS (AP) — Mud, money and more security: The U.N.'s cultural agency said Friday that not much more is needed to help rebuild 11 mausoleums that Islamic extremists "totally devastated" in the fabled Malian city of Timbuktu.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said she plans to send experts to Mali to assess the full extent of the damage left by al-Qaida-linked Islamists who ran Timbuktu and the rest of northeastern Mali for months before being chased out by French-led troops.
"We have to make an assessment about what the real situation is," said Bokova, who accompanied French President Francois Hollande to Timbuktu last Saturday. Of the mausoleums, "there are 11 that are totally devastated," she said.
"We launched a fund for the preservation and restoration of the heritage in Mali, including the manuscripts and mausoleums. We can restore them," she said. "We have all the plans, we have the designs" for buildings "made of mud (for bricks) and local materials."
"We have to have the situation secured," she said. French and Malian troops have regained control of Timbuktu, though security threats remain across the region.
An initial cost estimate of work to restore damaged cultural assets in Timbuktu is about $4 million to $5 million, said Kishore Rao, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center's culture sector. "Much more required in the long term, of course."
UNESCO estimates there are 300,000 ancient manuscripts — some dating back hundreds of years — in Timbuktu about themes like astronomy, optics and philosophy during a "Golden Age" of Islamic thought and civilization.
Under the French-led military onslaught last month, Islamic fighters torched Timbuktu's new Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research — in an effort to destroy some 30,000 manuscripts believed to be inside.
But many had not been transferred there yet. Estimates vary, but it appears no more than 2,000 were actually burned. Others were squirreled away by 30 or so by families that own most of the estimated 300,000 manuscripts — some for centuries, UNESCO said.
The Islamists swept into Timbuktu last spring with their own, severe interpretation of Islam, intent on quashing what they saw as the veneration of idols instead of the pure worship of Allah. Part of that included reducing to rubble the mausoleums honoring the city's saints.
The Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization plans to host a Feb. 18 conference of experts, intellectuals and officials from Mali and beyond to discuss a UNESCO "action plan" to help restore and protect the country's cultural heritage.
The French and Malian air and ground campaign to dislodge the Islamic militants who controlled vast northern Mali has been seen as a crucial step to help national authorities in Bamako, the capital, to restore the country's territorial integrity.
"I don't believe Mali can move forward and close this chapter, to national unity, to national reconciliation, to a different life, if they don't restore this heritage — and if they don't see that it is preserved," Bokova said.
Eds: Rukmini Callimachi contributed from Timbuktu, Mali.