Islamists vow to smash every mausoleum in Timbuktu

A mosque in Timbuktu, Mali (image from April 2006) Timbuktu is listed by the UN as a world heritage site

Islamist rebels occupying the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali have vowed to smash every mausoleum, in the face of international protests.

A spokesman for the Ansar Dine group, Sanda Ould Boumama, said it would "destroy every mausoleum in the city - all of them, without exception".

The centuries-old shrines to Islamic saints, revered by Sufi Muslims, are regarded as idolatrous by the group.

Six mausoleums have been reportedly been destroyed this weekend.

Three were smashed on Saturday, and a further three on Sunday, local sources told international news agencies.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, described the destruction of the mausoleums as a "war crime", the AFP news agency reported.

"My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate," she said, according to AFP.

Mali's Culture and Tourism Minister, Diallo Fadima Toure, urged the UN to take action to stop "crimes" against her country's architectural treasures.

Ansar Dine, which has ties to al-Qaeda, seized northern Mali in March, in tandem with ethnic Tuareg rebels.

However, the alliance between the two groups has frayed and the Islamists now say they control the territory after driving out their former allies.

'Armed madmen'

Another spokesman for Ansar Dine, Oumar Ould Hamaha, told Reuters news agency by phone: "We are subject to religion and not to international opinion

"Building on graves is contrary to Islam. We are destroying the mausoleums because it is ordained by our religion."

Treasures of Timbuktu

  • Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th Centuries
  • 700,000 manuscripts survive in public libraries and private collections
  • Books on religion, law, literature and science
  • Letters between rulers, advisers and merchants on subjects as varied as taxation, commerce, marriage and prostitution
  • Added to Unesco world heritage list in 1988 for its three large mosques and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums
  • Unesco says they played a major role in spreading Islam in West Africa; the oldest dates from 1329

A local journalist told AFP on Sunday that the Islamists had smashed three mausoleums in the cemetery at the 14th-Century Djingareyber mosque.

"There are many of us watching them destroy the mausoleum," the journalist said on condition of anonymity.

"It hurts but we can't do anything. These madmen are armed, we can't do anything but they will be cursed, that is for sure."

Reuters also quoted a journalist as saying three mausoleums had been destroyed on Sunday.

"They had armed men guarding the door," said Yaya Tandina.

"Just like yesterday, the population did not react. They (local people) said we need to let them (the Islamists) do what they want, hoping that some day we will rebuild the tombs."

In another development, a Timbuktu resident told AFP on Sunday the Islamists had also threatened to destroy mosques.

"This morning the Islamists told us that if there are saints inside the mosques, they will also destroy these mosques," the unnamed resident said.

'War crimes'

Mali's government condemned the "destructive fury, comparable to war crimes" and a meeting of the UN's cultural body, Unesco, heard a call to respect Mali's heritage sites.

"I appeal to all those engaged in the conflict in Timbuktu to exercise their responsibility," Unesco session chairwoman Yeleonor Mitrofanova said at the conference in the Russian city of St Petersburg.

"For the sake of future generations, spare the legacy of their past."

Ansar Dine is reportedly made up of Islamist fighters from Mali and other African states including Algeria and Nigeria.

"What shocks me the most is the presence of foreigners among them who do it with mockery while shouting Allah Akbar," Timbuktu resident Hamed Mohamed told Reuters.

"For me it is a declaration of war and a crime against our cultural heritage. It is time that the international community helped us."

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