Islamist militants, swinging pick-axes and shouting God’s praise, have destroyed ancient tombs of Muslim saints in Mali’s fabled city of Timbuktu, sparking international condemnation.
The rampage of destruction in the UNESCO designated world-heritage city comes after three months of unrest in Mali’s remote desert north, which has raised fears of a new Islamist extremist haven in west Africa.
Ansar Dine and other Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups have imposed strict sharia law since sweeping across northern Mali in the chaotic aftermath of a March 22 coup in the capital, Bamako.
“They have raped Timbuktu today. It is a crime,” said a source close to a local imam in Timbuktu, known as the “City of 333 Saints”.
Witnesses said the Islamists, who regard shrines as idolatrous, had destroyed the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya.
In addition to three historic mosques, Timbuktu is home to 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, according to the UNESCO website.
A spokesman for the group, Sanda Ould Boumama, vowed: “Ansar Dine will today destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception.”
Alissandra Cummins, the chair of UNESCO’s executive committee, said: “This is tragic news for us all.
“I appeal to all those engaged in the conflict in Timbuktu to exercise their responsibility – for the sake of future generations, spare the legacy of their past.”
Mali’s government in Bamako denounced the “destructive fury”, comparing it to war crimes and threatened action on the national and international level.
Former colonial power France condemned “the systematic violation of these places of reverence and prayer” and appealed “for an end to this violence and this intolerance”.
A witness said that early Saturday morning, about “30 fighters of Ansar Dine moved towards the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud” in the city’s north.
“Some had guns. They did not shoot. Then they started shouting ‘Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!’ (God is greatest! God is greatest!) And with pick-axes and hoes, they started to break down the mausoleum.” …
The 30 fighters have no fear of ghosts, I guess. If I was resting in peace and some damn religious mob disturbed my bones, I’d haunt the hell out of them, perhaps even drive them insane.