BAMAKO (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes began destroying prized mausoleums of saints in the UNESCO-listed northern city of Timbuktu on Saturday in front of shocked locals, witnesses said.
The Islamist Ansar Dine group backs strict sharia, Islamic law, and considers the shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam idolatrous. Sufi shrines have also been attacked by hardline Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year.
The attack came just days after UNESCO placed Timbuktu on its list of heritage sites in danger and will recall the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
“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.
Ansar Dine has gained the upper hand over less well-armed Tuareg-led separatists since the two joined forces to rout government troops and seize control in April of the northern two-thirds of the West African state.
“The mausoleum doesn’t exist any more and the cemetery is as bare as a soccer pitch,” local teacher Abdoulaye Boulahi said of the Mahmoud burial place.
“There’s about 30 of them breaking everything up with pick-axes and hoes. They’ve put their Kalashnikovs down by their side. These are shocking scenes for the people in Timbuktu.”
Local Timbuktu member of parliament Sandy Haidara also confirmed the attacks were taking place, adding: “It looks as if it is a direct reaction to the UNESCO decision.”
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 a 16th-century Golden Age as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists.
Mali had in recent years 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.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee said this week it had accepted the request of the Malian government to place Timbuktu on its list of endangered heritage sites.
“The Committee ... also asked Mali’s neighbours to do all in their power to prevent the trafficking in cultural objects from these sites,” it said of the risk of looting.
The rebel seizure of the north came as the remote southern capital, Bamako, was struggling with the aftermath of a March 22 coup.
Mali’s neighbours are seeking U.N. backing for a military intervention to stabilise the country but Security Council members say they need more details on the mission being planned.
Writing and addtional reporting Mark John in Dakar; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo