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Timbuktu mausoleum attacks ‘a message’ to Mali leaders

The vandalism of historic mausoleums in Timbuktu for being ‘un-Islamic’ is a direct message to the Malian capital Bamako and the rest of the world that the Islamists are the new rulers of northern Mali, says one regional expert.


Islamist rebels continued destroying historic mausoleums in Timbuktu for a second day on Sunday, in what one regional expert said was a direct message to the Malian capital Bamako that the rebels were the legitimate and untouchable rulers of the region.

Northern Mali seceded from the south after a coup in Bamako in March.

The rebellion was led by the secular Tuareg MNLA. But its allies - the previously unknown Islamist group Ansar Dine, who are openly allied with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - have since taken the initiative and driven the secular MNLA from power.

On Sunday, Ansar Dine rebels continued to smash mausoleums of Muslim saints in Timbuktu - action reminiscent of the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan – because they see them as idolatrous and un-Islamic.

But regional expert Mathieu Guidere said the destruction of the tombs, while following an Islamist agenda, had much more to do with sending a strong message to Bamako, who had asked international heritage body UNESCO to add Timbuktu to their list of endangered sites.

“There was a broad consensus between the various factions now running northern Mali to react to Bamako’s request and to assert their power on the city,” he told FRANCE 24. “They want Bamako and the rest of the world to know that Timbuktu is no longer under their control. Ansar Dine and its allies in northern Mali see themselves as the legitimate rulers of this part of Africa.”

Horror and outrage

The Bamako authorities and the international community have expressed horror and outrage at the destruction of cultural treasures in the fabled city, an ancient desert crossroads and centre of learning known as the "City of 333 Saints".

The Islamists destroyed the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya on Saturday and on Sunday attacked Cheikh el-Kebir's mausoleum as residents stood by helplessly.

Crying "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great), the men circled the cemetery clasping tools such as chisels and hoes, but did not have the construction vehicles that were used in Saturday's rampage.

“They came at five o’clock in the morning to vandalise all the mausoleums in the Sidi Mahmoud cemetery,” one resident told our sister service RFI. “They destroyed everything ... using hammers, chisels and spades. They didn’t spare any effort to destroy everything.”

Several saints are buried inside the city's three historic mosques and the city is also home to 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, according to the UNESCO website.

The Islamist fighters from Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) are among the al Qaeda-linked armed groups which occupied the north of Mali in the chaos that emerged after a March coup in Bamako.

Their presence in Timbuktu prompted UNESCO on Thursday to list the city as an endangered site because of the continuing violence in northern Mali and in the wake of an attack on a 15th century tomb in May.

‘UNESCO is what?’

"God is unique. All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?" a spokesman for Ansar Dine, Sanda Ould Boumama, said on Saturday.

He said the group was acting in the name of God and would, "destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception".

The March 22 coup eased the way for Tuareg separatist rebels - descendants of those who founded Timbuktu in the fifth century - to carry out the armed takeover of an area larger than France which they consider their homeland.

The Ansar Dine group, which is led by Tuareg tribesman Iyad Ag Ghaly, has since pushed the MNLA from all positions of power.

The international community fears the vast desert area will become a new haven for terrorist activity, and the Islamists have threatened any country that joins a possible military intervention force in Mali.

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