BAMAKO (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked Islamists in Timbuktu broke down the door to a 15th century mosque on Monday that locals believed had to stay shut until the end of the world, defying international calls to halt the destruction of holy sites in the UNESCO-listed city.
In a third day of attacks on historic and religious landmarks that UNESCO has called "wanton destruction", the Islamists targeted the ancient Sidi Yahya mosque as they tried to erase traces of what they regard as un-Islamic idolatry.
"In legend, it is said that the main gate of Sidi Yahya mosque will not be opened until the last day (of the world)," Alpha Abdoulahi, the town imam, told Reuters by telephone.
Yet eight Islamist fighters smashed down the door to the mosque early on Monday, saying they wanted to "destroy the mystery" of the ancient entrance, he said.
"They offered me 50,000 CFA for repairs but I refused to take the money, saying that what they did is irreparable."
Islamists of the Ansar Dine group say the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam in Timbuktu are idolatrous. They have so far destroyed at least eight of 16 listed mausoleums in the city, together with a number of tombs.
Ansar Dine and well-armed allies, including al Qaeda splinter group MUJWA, have hijacked a separatist uprising by local Tuareg MNLA rebels and now control two-thirds of Mali's desert north, territory that includes the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The size of the area under their control is bigger than France, heightening fears that Mali will become a jihadist haven.
The MNLA rebels criticised the Islamists' destruction of holy sites, underlining a growing rift between the two groups that had formed an uneasy alliance to take over the north of the country.
"The perpetrators of these heinous acts, their sponsors, and those who support them must be made accountable," MNLA spokesman Hama Ag Mahmoud told Reuters in an interview in Nouakchott.
Sufi shrines have been attacked by hardline Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year. The attacks also recall the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
Mali's government in the capital Bamako about 1,000 km (630 miles) south has condemned the attacks, but is powerless to halt them after its army was routed by rebels in April. It is still struggling to bolster a return to civilian rule after a March 22 coup that emboldened the rebel uprising further north.
The attacks have been widely condemned inside Mali.
"The 333 saints would be turning in their graves," the country's Les Echos newspaper write on Monday, referring to 333 revered Sufi imams, sheiks and scholars buried in Timbuktu.
"Today there are old women, old people in Timbuktu who say that maybe it is the end of the world," entrepreneur and former Timbuktu resident Male Dioum told Reuters.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and former colonial power France appealed on Saturday for a halt to the attacks.
The U.N. body seeks to protect places around the world it classifies as world heritage sites, arguing they are of special cultural significance and should be preserved for posterity.
Located on an old Saharan trading route that saw salt from the Arab north exchanged for gold and slaves from black Africa to the south, Timbuktu blossomed in the 16th century as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists.
In recent years, Mali had sought to create a desert tourism industry around Timbuktu. But even before April's rebellion many tourists were being discouraged by a spate of kidnappings of Westerners in the region claimed by al Qaeda-linked groups.