DAKAR -- In northern Mali, members of the Islamic militant group Ansar Dine are systematically destroying mausoleums and revered Muslim tombs in Timbuktu. UNESCO has listed the historic city as a World Heritage site for its ancient mosques and shrines.
Residents of Timbuktu told VOA that armed men from Ansar Dine began leveling the tombs early Saturday morning. The sites, including the tomb of 15th-century Muslim scholar Sidi Mahmoud, are considered sacred by the local population. Hardline Islamist groups like Ansar Dine regard such shrines as sacrilegious, but the sites are an important part of worship for Muslims around the world.
Anthadi Oumar Ascofaré was born in Timbuktu 64 years ago, and he talked to VOA from there. “Armed men encircled shrines and cemeteries in the city, while others destroyed tombs with axes, shovels and machetes,” he said. “It is painful for us to witness this destruction, but since we are unarmed we cannot react.”
Assoumane Maïga is a native of Timbuktu currently based in the capital, Bamako. He said he received calls throughout Saturday morning from people in Timbuktu who wanted to organize to stop the destruction. However, Maïga said, he was told that Ansar Dine's fighters threatened physical beatings for anyone gathering in a group of more than three or four people.
The shrines are an integral part of Timbuktu's Muslim culture, Maïga says: “Every Friday all the people from Timbuktu usually go to the cemeteries in the early morning to pray. Today it’s like you are taking a part of the soul of every single individual in Timbuktu."
Mali’s interim government condemned the “destructive rage” on display in Timbuktu. In a statement Saturday afternoon, authorities in Bamako said the desecration and destruction of shrines amounts to war crimes, and vowed to go after the perpetrators, possibly in the International Criminal Court. The communique said the violence in Timbuktu had nothing to do with Islam, and added, “The Malian people will continue to fight these reactionary practices that fly in the face of morality and cultural values.”
The attack on the ancient mausoleums comes just days after the United Nations cultural agency put Timbuktu on its list of sites that are in danger. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee urged the African Union and the international community to help protect Timbuktu and its 16 ancient mausoleums.
During the past week Ansar Dine and other Islamic groups in northern Mali fought with separatist Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA. The Islamists succeeded in pushing the MNLA out of the main northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
Ansar Dine swept into northern Mali three months ago, fighting alongside Tuaregs campaigning for an independent state. Ansar Dine has said its objective is not an separate state in northern Mali, but the application of strict Islamic law throughout the western African nation.