Al Qaeda-backed Islamists in Mali destroyed centuries-old UNESCO sites Saturday, recalling the 2001 destruction of Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes destroyed centuries-old mausoleums of saints in the UNESCO-listed city of Timbuktu on Saturday in front of shocked locals, witnesses said.
The Islamist Ansar Dine group backs strict sharia, Islamic law, and considers the shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam to be idolatrous. Sufi shrines have also been attacked by hardline Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year.
The attack came just days after UNESCO placed Timbuktu on its list of heritage sites in danger and will recall the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
"They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pick-up trucks. The population is just looking on helplessly," local journalist Yeya Tandina said by telephone.
Tandina and other witnesses said Ansar Dine had already destroyed the mausoleums of three local saints – Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi El Mokhtar, and Alfa Moya – and at least seven tombs.