Islamist rebels smash ′Pearl of the Desert′ | Africa | DW | 02.07.2012
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Islamist rebels smash 'Pearl of the Desert'

Despite international condemnation, Islamic militants in Mali continue to destroy historic sites in the city of Timbuktu. The International Criminal Court has described the destruction as a war crime.

It was supposed to be business as usual when representatives of the UN cultural organization UNESCO met in the Russian city of St. Petersburg on Saturday. They were to decide which places around the globe should be recognized as World Heritage Sites.

Then the news broke that Islamic rebels had started destroying ancient religious sites in the West African city of Timbuktu, which had been declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.

A minute's silence

"Germany requested a minute of silence after we learned of the destructions in Mali", one delegate at the meeting told DW. "We all rose to our feet to show that we condemn these acts".

Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during the handover of a Swiss female hostage for transport by helicopter to neighboring Burkina Faso, at a designated rendezvous point in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali Tuesday, April 24, 2012. Two main groups now appear to be competing to govern northern Mali: Ansar Dine, which wants to see Sharia law brought to Mali, and separatist rebels who already have declared an independent state. (Foto:AP/dapd)

Ansar Dine fighters consider Timbuktu's sites unislamic.

According to eye-witnesses, fighters of the Ansar Dine movement, armed with shovels and pick-axes started moving through the town on Saturday. The group, often described as a local al-Qaeda affiliate, started to smash and destroy mausoleums and other ancient religious sites. By Monday, seven sites in the city had been destroyed. An Ansar Dine spokesman announced that they would destroy the remaining nine as well.

Timbuktu, once nicknamed the "Pearl in the Desert" and a popular tourist destination is situated about one thousand kilometers north of Mali's capital Bamako. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the city was the spiritual and intellectual capital of West Africa. 16 cemetries and mausoleums and three big mosques, which date back to that period, were granted World Heritage status in 1988.

Widespread condemnation

The international community was quick to condemn the vandalism. UNESCO's Director General, Irina Bokova, called on Ansar Dine to end their campaign immediately. Ute Koczy, a German MP and the Green Party's shadow development minister called the destruction in Timbuktu "appalling".

Ansar Dine seemed unimpressed by such remarks. Their spokesman Sanda Ould Bounmama said "God is unique. We are all Muslims. UNESCO is - what?"

The Islamists says they will destroy all ancient sites in Timbuktu and then apply sharia law throughout the city.

One of the sites they wrecked at the weekend was the mausoleum of Mahmud Ben Amar, a 16th century Islamic scholar. For centuries, his tomb has been popular with worshippers who would ask for Amar's spiritual support in difficult times. In the eyes of Ansar Dine, this contradicts the teachings of Islam, where only god may be worshipped. Their spokesman Sanda Ould Bamama was quick to declare that Amar's grave was "haram", meaning sinful.

Residents "deeply shocked"

However, observers, believe that the Islamists' acts of destruction are not just religiously motivated. They also want to quell any possible resistance to their rule among Timbuktu's residents.

A traditional mud structure stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu May 15, 2012. Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes began destroying prized mausoleums of saints in the UNESCO-listed northern city of Timbuktu on June 30, 2012 in front of shocked locals. (Picture by Reuters)

Timbuktu's historic site made it popular with tourists in the past.

"We are deeply shocked. Our honour has been wounded", Timbuktu resident Hadih Garda told DW's French Service.

He said that the residents were trying to stay calm and avoid provoking the Islamists. "We have to be patient", Garda said, adding that the army currently lacked the capability to liberate the city. Timbuktu residents have been calling on the West African regional body ECOWAS to send in an intervention force.

Potential war crime

Another international body might start soon targeting the Islamists as well. On Sunday, the International Criminal Court's new prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, issued a stern warning: She said that the destruction might constitute a war crime and that her office might seek to prosecute the culprits.

Author: Peter Hille / dp
Editor: Mark Caldwell

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