BAMAKO, Mali (Reuters) — Ignoring international calls to halt their attacks, Islamist militants in Timbuktu continued to smash the mausoleums of Sufi saints on Sunday, witnesses said.
The hard-line Salafi group Ansar Dine, which supports a puritanical version of Islamic law, consider the centuries-old Sufi shrines in Timbuktu to be idolatrous. About 30 militants armed with assault rifles and pickaxes destroyed three mausoleums on Saturday and three more on Sunday, witnesses said. The group said it planned to destroy all 16 of the city’s main shrines.
The United Nations’s cultural agency Unesco recently put Timbuktu on its list of endangered world heritage sites, fearing damage to landmarks and cultural treasures in the wake of a coup in March. But the militants have ignored its call to halt the attacks.
“We are subject to religion and not to international opinion,” said an Ansar Dine spokesman, Oumar Ould Hamaha. “Building on graves is contrary to Islam.”
Sufi shrines have also been attacked by hard-line Salafis in Egypt and Libya in the past year.
Ansar Dine reportedly also has members from other countries, including Algeria and Nigeria.
“What shocks me the most is the presence of foreigners among them who do it with mockery while shouting ‘Allahu akbar,’ ” or God is great, said Hamed Mohamed, a Timbuktu resident. “For me, it is a declaration of war and a crime against our cultural heritage.”
Mali’s defense minister condemned the attacks on Sunday and said there was a need for urgent action. “What is happening in Timbuktu is really outrageous,” said the minister, Col. Yamoussa Camara.
The United Nations Security Council has said that it would be ready to support military intervention by Mali’s neighbors to help the current government take back the north, but that it needs more details of their plans.