DAKAR Armed fighters of Mail's al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine Islamist group on Saturday destroyed mausoleums in the ancient trading city of Timbuktu, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, witnesses said.
The attack came just four days after UNESCO agreed to a request by the West African state to place Timbuktu on its list of heritage sites in danger following the seizure of its northern two-thirds in April by separatist and Islamist rebels.
"They have already completely destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud (Ben Amar) and two others. They said they would continue all day and destroy all 16," local Malian journalist Yeya Tandina said by telephone of the 16 most prized resting grounds of local saints in the town.
"They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pick-up trucks. The population is just looking on helplessly," he said, adding that the Islamists were currently taking pick-axes to the mausoleum of Sidi El Mokhtar, another cherished local saint.
"It looks as if it is a direct reaction to the UNESCO decision," Timbuktu deputy Sandy Haidara said by telephone, confirming the attacks.
Since government forces were routed in April, Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have gained the upper hand over less well-armed Tuaregs whose goal is a secular, independent northern state.
Ansar Dine is pushing for strict sharia, Islamic law, across the whole of the country and deems un-Islamic the shrines of Timbuktu, an expression of the local Sufi brand of the religion.
(Reporting and writing by Mark John in Dakar; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)