Militants Seek to Destroy Mali Shrines-Reuters
July 3, 2012
Reuters: June 30, 2012
Islamist militants, wielding pickaxes, began destroying the mausoleums of Muslim saints in the northern city of Timbuktu on Saturday, witnesses said.
The militants from the group Ansar Dine, which controls much of northern Mali, adhere to a strict version of Islamic law and consider the shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam idolatrous.
Just days ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, put Timbuktu on its list of endangered world heritage sites, fearing damage to landmarks and cultural treasures in the wake of a coup that ousted Mali’s government in March.
A local Malian journalist, Yeya Tandina, said Saturday that the Ansar Dine fighters had already destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, one of the 16 shrines in Timbuktu, and had declared that they would demolish all the others. Later, residents said at least two other mausoleums and seven tombs had been destroyed.
“They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pickup trucks,” Mr. Tandina said by telephone. “The population is just looking on helplessly.”
Irina Bokova, Unesco’s director general, said there was “no justification for such wanton destruction, and I call on all parties engaged in the conflict to stop these terrible and irreversible acts.” The French Foreign Ministry condemned the attacks on what it called “a part of the soul” of Timbuktu.
Ansar Dine has gained the upper hand over the less well-armed Tuareg separatists since an alliance between the groups frayed after they had joined forces to rout government troops and seized control in April of the northern two-thirds of Mali.
“The mausoleum doesn’t exist any more, and the cemetery is as bare as a soccer pitch,” a local teacher, Abdoulaye Boulahi, said of the burial place of Sidi Mahmoud, a 15th-century Muslim scholar.
“There’s about 30 of them breaking everything up with pickaxes and hoes,” Mr. Boulahi said. “They’ve put their Kalashnikovs down by their side. These are shocking scenes for the people in Timbuktu.”
A member of Parliament from Timbuktu, Sandy Haidara, also confirmed that the attacks were taking place, adding, “It looks as if it is a direct reaction to the Unesco decision.”
It also asked Mali’s neighbors “to do all in their power to prevent the trafficking in cultural objects from these sites.”
The attacks on Timbuktu’s shrines recall the Taliban’s destruction in 2001 of two sixth-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamian in central Afghanistan.
Timbuktu, which is on an old Saharan trading route, blossomed in the 16th century as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists.