Mali Islamist militants 'destroy' Timbuktu saint's tomb

image captionTimbuktu is the site of three great medieval mosques, Unesco says

Islamist fighters said to be linked to al-Qaeda have destroyed the tomb of a local Muslim saint in the Malian town of Timbuktu, officials and locals say.

The gunmen attacked the shrine and set it on fire, saying it was contrary to Islam, according to the official.

Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters took control of Timbuktu, a UN heritage site, after a military coup in March.

Unesco said the town's capture could endanger its "outstanding architectural wonders" .

Residents said armed men from the Islamist group Ansar Dine threatened locals going to worship at the grave of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar.

"What you are doing is haram! (forbidden). Seek help from God directly rather than the dead," one of the gunmen said, according to a resident quoted by the Reuters news agency.

A local politician, El Hadj Baba Haidara, told Reuters about the atttack:

"They attacked the grave, broke doors, windows and wooden gates that protect it. They brought it outside and burn it," he said. "This tomb is sacred, it is too difficult to bear."

A local official said the fighters had threatened to destroy other saints' tombs, according to the AFP news agency.

Strict Islamists regard shines as idolatrous, while some Muslims, especially Sufis, regard them as an accepted part of Muslim worship.

On its website, Unesco, the UN's cultural agency, says Timbuktu is the location of three great mosques dating back to the 14th century, as well 16 cemeteries and mausoleums.

Founded in the 12th Century, Timbuktu became wealthy at the nexus of important trading routes for salt and gold, reaching its apogee in the 15th and 16th centuries.

It became a major intellectual and religious centre, and still houses tens of thousands of manuscripts, some dating back centuries.

Rebels demanding independence for a Tuareg homeland and fighters of Ansar Dine, which is said to be linked to al-Qaeda, took advantage of the chaos that followed the March coup to overrun the northern half of Mali.

The coup leaders in Bamako said they had toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure because he failed to give sufficient support to troops battling Tuareg rebels in the north.

Under international pressure, they later handed back power to a civilian government, but remain influential.

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