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Culture

UNESCO warns Timbuktu in danger amid Mali unrest

  • Timbuktu’s Djinguereber Mosque. (AFP PHOTO FILES / ISSOUF SANOGO)

  • Some of the ancient manuscripts at the Islamic center in Timbuktu, which form part of the cultural heritage of the city. (AFP PHOTO / HABIBOU KOUYATE)

  • Timbuktu’s Islamic center and a mosque. (AFP PHOTO / HABIB KOUYATE)

SAINT PETERSBURG: The UN cultural organization UNESCO listed Mali’s legendary town of Timbuktu as an endangered world heritage site Thursday because of the deadly unrest hitting the West African nation.

UNESCO said the decision to place both the town and the nearby Tomb of Askia on its List of World Heritage sites in Danger “aims to raise cooperation and support for the sites threatened by the armed conflict in the region.”

The world’s main watchdog over the safety of some of history’s greatest treasures and most threatened cultural exhibits designated the iconic town – once a trading mecca and hub of scholarly studies – a heritage site in 1988.

The Tomb of Askia, for its part, is a towering pyramidal structure erected out of mud more than 500 years ago to commemorate the burial site of a ruler who created an empire around the powerful Niger River.

The tomb is located in Gao, a town that in recent weeks has been held both by Islamist gunmen with links to Al-Qaeda and a group of Tuareg rebels who also oppose the Mali state.

Tuareg rebels spearheaded the takeover of the north when a March 22 coup in the capital Bamako left the country in chaos.

They were soon joined by the Ansar Dine Islamist rebels who have since taken the upper hand.

Tensions have been running high between the two rebel groups because of their differing objectives. Deadly clashes in the resulting fight for supremacy have made Gao into a focal point of unrest.

Islamists claimed control of Gao on Wednesday after fierce clashes with Tuareg separatists left at least 21 people dead.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee said during its meeting in Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg that both Timbuktu and the tomb were now in danger of being looted.

It called on Mali’s neighbors “to do all in their power to prevent the trafficking of cultural objects from these sites” and encouraged stronger cooperation in the region.

“There is concern that such objects, notably important ancient manuscripts, [may] be looted and smuggled abroad by unscrupulous dealers,” UNESCO said in a statement.

Fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been accused of destroying the tomb of St. Sidi Amar after taking over Timbuktu in March.

Fifteen other holy tombs and 300,000 Muslim manuscripts are now at risk in Timbuktu and Gao, experts said last month.

The annual UNESCO committee meeting has already produced some surprising decisions, and has been hampered by diplomatic wrangling over conflict in the Middle East and religious issues.

The committee Tuesday proclaimed the British city of Liverpool – home to the Beatles and passionate football fans – in danger because of a controversial docklands redevelopment project.

The biggest controversy concerns the status of a church marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus, which was also the site of a bloody hostage crisis during the Palestinian uprising against Israeli in 2002.

The Palestinians are trying to get fast-track approval for the Church of the Nativity in the Israeli-controlled West Bank town of Bethlehem to be added to heritage list.

Israel argues that granting the “emergency basis” status would essentially mean that the United Nations as a world body was backing the Palestinian view that the church was being threatened by the Jewish state’s troops.

The three Churches involved – the Catholic as well as Greek Orthodox and Armenian – for their part have only given lukewarm approval for the idea because of the dangers this potentially poses to their own rights on the shrine.

A decision on the ancient Bethlehem church is expected by this weekend.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 29, 2012, on page 16.
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