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Tue Jul 29 02:34:05 SAST 2014

Islamists destroy Mali world heritage sites

Sapa-AP, Reuters | 30 June, 2012 13:16
Malians gesture behind the national flag at a rally against the seizure of northern Mali by Tuareg and Islamist rebels.
Image by: JOE PENNEY / Joe Penney

A resident of the northern Mali city of Timbuktu says Islamists who control the town are trying to destroy tombs classified as Unesco World Heritage sites.

Ali Yattara said Saturday that the Islamists began attacking the saints' tombs with shovels. He says they said they were responding to Unesco's request last week that the sites be put on the organisation's "in danger" list.

Unesco has said that two World Heritage sites in Mali – Timbuktu and the tomb of Askia – are threatened by conflict between competing rebel groups who have taken over the north.

“They have already completely destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud (Ben Amar) and two others. They said they would continue all day and destroy all 16,” local Malian journalist Yeya Tandina said of the 16 most prized resting grounds of local saints in the town.

Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning as far back as the 12th Century.

Islamist fighters with ties to al Qaeda have declared that they control the northern half of Mali after driving out an ethnic Tuareg separatist group.

However, the Tuareg group says it still controls at least 90 percent of northern Mali, and has lost only the main towns.

The development is more worrying news for the landlocked nation of 15.4 million, which was plunged into chaos after a coup in March.

The separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, took advantage of the power vacuum in the capital to push forward and seize the towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu - the very towns it has now lost to the Ansar Dine Islamist faction.

Contacted by telephone, Oumar Ould Hamaha, a fighter with Ansar Dine, said Friday that it now commands the northern half of Mali, an area larger than France, and plans to fully impose Islamic law, or Shariah. Already last week in the city of Gao, an unmarried couple was publicly lashed 100 times by the militants.

"Our fighters control the perimeter. We control Timbuktu completely. We control Gao completely. It's Ansar Dine that commands the north of Mali," said Hamaha, who served as chief of security for the group in Gao. "Now we have every opportunity to apply sharia."

Asked if the faction would impose the strict Islamic code against the wishes of the population, which has long practiced a moderate form of the religion, Hamaha replied: "Sharia does not require a majority vote.

“It's not democracy. It's the divine law that was set out by God to be followed by his slaves. One hundred percent of the north of Mali is Muslim, and even if they don't want this, they need to go along with it."

In France, the Paris-based spokesman of the NMLA, which espouses a secularist vision, downplayed the advances made by the Islamists, but conceded that the separatists had lost control of the major towns. Moussa Ag Assarid said the NMLA has not left Mali and is now controlling the major roads leading into the north, as well as the majority of the territory outside the three major towns.

"We control 90% of the Azawad," said Assarid, using the traditional word in the Tuareg's Tamashek language for northern Mali.

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Tue Jul 29 02:34:05 SAST 2014 ::