Al-Qaeda-linked fighters occupying Timbuktu in northern Mali have destroyed remaining mausoleums in the ancient city using pickaxes, a leader of the group says.
"The Islamists are currently in the process of destroying all the mausoleums in the area with pickaxes"
"Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu, Allah doesn't like it," Abou Dardar, head of Ansar Dine, told the AFP news agency on Sunday. "We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area."
The smashing of the mausoleum, part of what the fighters say is about defending the purity of their faith against idol worship, follows a United Nations approval of a military force to wrest back control of the conflict-ridden area.
Historians say the rebels' campaign of destruction is pulverising a valuable part of the history of Islam in Africa.
The AFP reported that witnesses confirmed the claims, which were also corroborated by a resident who said he belonged to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), another group occupying the fabled city.
"The Islamists are currently in the process of destroying all the mausoleums in the area with pickaxes," one witness said.
"I saw Islamists get out of a car near the historic mosque of Timbuktu. They smashed a mausoleum behind a house shouting 'Allah is great, Allah is great'," another resident told AFP.
Rebel groups with links to al-Qaeda took control of northern parts of the West African nation after a March 10 coup by low-ranking soldiers.
Amputations in Gao
"Anything that doesn't fall under Islam is not good. Man should only worship Allah," Mohamed Alfoul said of the mausoleums that armed groups consider blasphemous.
The vandalism of the Muslim saints' tombs in the UNESCO World Heritage site came a day after other armed groups in the northern city of Gao announced they had amputated two people's hands.
The group, belonging to the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), warned more amputations would follow.
The continued strict application of sharia law is seen as a sign that the armed groups are unfazed by the United Nations' approval of the African-led military operation, which planners say cannot be launched before September next year.
The fighters destroyed the entrance to a 15th-century mosque in Timbuktu, the so-called "City of 333 Saints", in July.
Not only present in cemeteries and mosques, the revered mausoleums are also found in alleyways and private residences in the fabled city, an ancient centre of learning and desert crossroads.
Ansar Dine first began destroying the cultural treasures in July.
The International Criminal Court warned that their vandalism was a war crime, but the armed groups followed up with more damage in October, when they smashed several Muslim saints' tombs, prompting another international outcry.