Amid desertification and drought, tensions rise as rival armed groups vie for control of the impoverished region.
Fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine, controlling northern Mali, have destroyed two tombs at the ancient Djingareyber mud mosque in Timbuktu, an endangered World Heritage site, witnesses say.
About a dozen men arrived in an armoured four-wheel drive truck, armed with pickaxes and hoes. They fired in the air
to intimidate people and started smashing the tombs, according to Ibrahim Cisse, who witnessed the incident.
“They blocked the two main roads leading to the mausoleums. When they saw people gathering for a ceremony nearby, they began firing shots in the air,” another resident, Mahamad ould Ibrahim, said.
The new destruction comes after attacks last week on other historic and religious landmarks in Timbuktu that UNESCO called “wanton destruction”. Ansar Dine has declared the ancient Muslim shrines “haram”, or forbidden in Islam,
The Djingareyber mosque is one of the most important in Timbuktu and was one of the fabled city’s main attractions before the region became a no-go area for tourists.
Ansar Dine has vowed to continue destroying all the shrines “without exception” amid an outpouring of grief and outrage both at home and abroad.
On Tuesday a source in Ansar Dine told the AFP news agency that “from now on, as soon as foreigners speak of Timbuktu” they would attack anything referred to as a World Heritage site.
“There is no world heritage, it doesn’t exist. The infidels must not get involved in our business,” said a Tunisian who gave his name only as Ahmed and said he was part of Ansar Dine’s “media committee”.
“We will destroy everything, even if the mausolea are inside the mosques, and afterwards we will destroy the mausolea in the region of Timbuktu,” he said.
The fighters from Ansar Dine or Defenders of Faith, began their destruction of the city’s cultural treasures on July 1, shortly after UNESCO placed them on a list of endangered World Heritage sites.
They destroyed seven of Timbuktu’s 16 mausolea and the sacred door of the 15th-century Sidi Yahya mosque.
Along with Sidi Yahya, Djingareyber and the Sankore mosque bear witness to Timbuktu’s golden age as an intellectual and spiritual capital which was crucial in the spread of Islam throughout Africa.
According to the UNESCO website, the Djingareyber mosque, the oldest of the three, was built by the sultan Kankan Moussa after his return in 1325 from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
All have been restored several times.
More ancient tombs are situated in the towns of Araouane and Gassra-Cheick in the greater Timbuktu region.
A March 22 coup in Mali eased the way for Tuareg separatist rebels to seize a vast area in the north that they consider their homeland.
However, the previously unknown Ansar Dine group seized the upper hand while fighting on their flanks.
Openly allied with the north African group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they have since pushed the Tuareg rebels from all positions of power.
The international community fears the desert region, which is larger than France, will become a new haven for terrorist activity. The fighters have threatened any country that joins a possible military intervention force in Mali.
West African mediators have ordered Mali’s embattled interim government to form a unity government by July 31 that will be better able to deal with the northern occupation.