A Malian fighter has admitted guilt at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the first ever case of a suspect charged with war crimes against a World Heritage site.

Ahmas al-Faqi al-Mahdi pleaded guilty on Monday at the ICC in The Hague where he is accused of intentionally attacking nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahi mosque within the city of Timbuktu in Mali.

Mahdi asked for forgiveness and said he had been swept up in an "evil wave" by al-Qaeda and the Ansar Dine groups, which briefly seized control of the northern city in 2012.

"This is the first and last wrongful act I will ever commit," Mahdi told the court in a measured and grave opening address.

"I regret what I have caused to my family, my community in Timbuktu, what I have caused to my home nation Mali," he added.

"I would like to seek the pardon of all the whole people of Timbuktu."

The rubble left from an ancient mausoleum destroyed in Timbuktu [File: Joe Penney/Reuters]

Al Jazeera's Paul Brennan, reporting from The Hague, described Mahdi's ICC trial as "genuinely groundbreaking" for several reasons.

"It's the first case arising from the 2012 conflict in Mali and the first time that destruction of religious and historical sites has been made a priority charge as a war crime," he said.

"Finally, it's the first time that an ICC war crimes defendant has pleaded guilty."

READ MORE: On trial: the destruction of history during conflict

Court officials said Mahdi's trial would proceed despite his confession, as the judges still needed to be satisfied he was guilty. Mahdi faces up to 30 years in prison.

Prosecutors from the ICC accuse Mahdi of being a member of Ansar Dine, a predominantly Tuareg armed group that occupied the region roughly 1,000km northeast of the capital, Bamako, alongside al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) four years ago.

As the head of the Hisbah, or the Manners Brigade, he is alleged to have ordered the attacks on the shrines with pickaxes, chisels and pick-up trucks.

Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries and a designated UNESCO world heritage site.

Timbuktu was named the City of 333 Saints in reference to the number of Muslim sages buried there [File: Joe Penney/Reuters]

Mausoleums destroyed

Despite its reverence as the epicentre of Islamic learning during its golden age, armed fighters condemned the land as idolatrous.

And so, during the 10-month occupation, they managed to destroy 14 ancient mausoleums and part of a mosque before French and Malian troops advanced on the city.

Fatou Bensouda, the ICC chief prosecutor, told the AFP news agency that such cultural destruction "is tantamount to an assault on people's history" and "robs future generations of their landmarks and their heritage".

"No one who destroys that which embodies the very soul and the roots of a people through such crimes should be allowed to escape justice," Bensouda said.


READ MORE: Timbuktu heritage 'under threat'


The ICC's chief prosecutor compared the Timbuktu case with the destruction of historic ruins in the Syrian city of Palmyra by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have also turned artefacts from the Mosul Museum, Iraq’s second largest museum, into rubble.

Archaeologists hope, in light of the prevalent war on art, that the trial will send a hard-hitting message to groups that wrecking culturally cherished artefacts will not go unpunished.

Historic Timbuktu war crime trial begins

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies