Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes destroyed centuries-old mausoleums of saints in the UNESCO-listed 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 to be 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
"They are armed and have surrounded the sites with
pick-up trucks. The population is just looking on helplessly," local
journalist Yeya Tandina said by telephone.
Tandina and other witnesses said Ansar Dine had already
destroyed the mausoleums of three local saints - Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi El Mokhtar
and Alfa Moya - and at least seven tombs.
"The mausoleum doesn't exist anymore 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," said Boulahi.
Contacted late on Saturday, Tandina said Ansar Dine had
halted the attacks on the holy site. Attempts to contact members of the group
Locals said the attackers had threatened to destroy all of
the 16 main mausoleum sites by the end of the day. UNESCO Director-General
Irina Bokova called for an immediate halt.
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