In Mali, Islamists have ousted their former rebel allies from Timbuktu. The al Qaeda-linked group has started destroying Muslim holy sites in Timbuktu after UNESCO listed them as a world heritage site.
Mali's neighbors in West Africa have held several meetings on the situation and are seeking UN backing for a military intervention to stabilize the country, but Security Council members say they need more details on the mission being planned. On Friday, the militant group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa threatened any countries that intervene to end the conflict.
Chaos has gripped Mali ever since a March 22 coup incapacitated the army. Tuaregs, who oppose the state and represent descendants of a group believed to have founded Timbuktu, spearheaded the initial armed takeover of the north of the country. They were subsequently joined by Ansar Dine, a militant group with formal ties to al Qaeda that has since taken the upper hand. Deadly clashes in the groups' fight for supremacy have made Gao, home to the Tomb of Askia, and Timbuktu into focal points of unrest.
The current rampage has added a bitterly painful new cultural dimension to the uprising. The Islamists, armed with Kalashnikovs and pickaxes, began destroying prized mausoleums in front of shocked locals, witnesses said. Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked group that backs strict shariah law, considers the Sufi Islam shrines idolatrous.
"They have already completely destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud and two others,” the Malian journalist Yeya Tandina told Reuters over the telephone. "They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pickup trucks,” he added. “The population is just looking on helplessly."
'A direct reaction'
Timbuktu, known as the “City of 333 Saints,” is home to three historic mosques as well as 16 cemeteries and mausoleums recognized by UNESCO, the world's primary watchdog for some of history's greatest treasures and most threatened cultural exhibits.
"It looks as if [the attacks are] a direct reaction to the UNESCO decision," Sandy Haidara, a member of parliament for Timbuktu, told Reuters.
"Ansar Dine will today destroy every mausoleum in the city,” said Sanda Ould Boumama, a spokesman for the al Qaeda-linked militant group largely responsible for the destruction. “All of them, without exception."
mkg/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)