Jan 27 (Reuters) - French and Malian troops were on Sunday restoring government control over the fabled Saharan trading town of Timbuktu, the latest gain in a fast-moving French-led offensive against al Qaeda-allied fighters occupying northern Mali.
Here are some facts about Timbuktu:
* Timbuktu has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 but tourism has suffered from security problems in recent years. Islamist gunmen seized three foreigners and killed a fourth on a street in Timbuktu in November 2011. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility.
* Spokesmen for Ansar Dine, the Islamist group officially in control of Timbuktu since last April, have said the city's famed traditional shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Moslems are un-Islamic and idolatrous. Radicals militants have destroyed several of these shrines, most recently last month.
* Mali is named after an ancient empire which grew rich from the trans-Saharan caravan trade through the city of Timbuktu. The historically important city, founded in 1100 by Tuareg nomads, was once the wealthiest in the region.
* By the 14th century, the city was a flourishing centre for the cross-Saharan gold and salt trade, and it grew as a centre of Islamic culture. Three of West Africa's oldest mosques, Djinguereber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, were built there during the 14th and early 15th centuries.
* Scottish explorer Gordon Laing was the first European to arrive in Timbuktu in 1826, followed by the French explorer Ren?-Auguste Caillie two years later. Timbuktu was captured by the French in 1894 and in 1960 it became part of the newly independent Republic of Mali.
Sources: Reuters/www.timbuktufoundation.org/www.britannica.com/http://whc.unesco.org (Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit)