BAMAKO, Mali: Mali’s Islamist rebels smashed the entrance of a 15th century Timbuktu mosque Monday, escalating a campaign of destruction of the city’s cultural treasures despite threats of prosecution for war crimes.
Some residents sobbed as the Islamist militants broke down the ‘sacred door’ of one of the northern Malian city’s three ancient mosques after they wrecked seven tombs of Muslim saints over the weekend.
Exclusive video footage obtained by AFP shows turbaned men chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ while smashing a mausoleum with pick-axes in a cloud of dust, the mud-brick tomb showing gaping holes in the side with rubble piling up alongside it.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the destruction, saying in a statement the sites were “part of the rich Islamic heritage of Mali and should not be allowed to be destroyed by ... bigoted extremist elements.”
The statement further called for “taking necessary measures and appropriate steps for the protection and preservation of the historical sites.”
Ansar Dine militants believe the shrines to be idolatrous and have threatened to destroy any mosques housing the remains of the ancient saints, prompting an outcry from government and the international community.
“The Islamists have just destroyed the door to the entrance of the Sidi Yahya mosque ... they tore the sacred door off which we never open,” said a resident of the town Monday morning.
A former tour guide said: “They came with pick-axes, they cried ‘Allah’ and broke the door. It is very serious. Some of the people watching began crying.”
Another man, a relative of a local imam, said he had spoken to members of Ansar Dine, which occupied the city and the rest of northern Mali in the chaos following a coup in Bamako three months ago.
“Some said that the day this door is opened it will be the end of the world, and they wanted to show that it is not the end of the world.”
The door on the south end of the mosque has been closed for centuries due to local beliefs that to open it will bring misfortune. The door leads to a tomb of saints, but the Islamists appeared unaware of this as one witness said if they had known “they would have broken everything.”
According to the website of the U.N. cultural agency (UNESCO) Sidi Yahya is one of Timbuktu’s three great mosques. Built around 1400, it dates back to the city’s golden age as a desert crossroads and center for learning.
The fabled city, which has become a metaphor for mythical and faraway places, is considered one of the centers from which Islam spread through Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The three mosques formed the ‘university’ of Timbuktu, also known as the “City of 333 Saints.”
Timbuktu is also home to 16 cemeteries and mausoleums.
Ansar Dine began their campaign of destruction after UNESCO put Timbuktu on its list of endangered world heritage sites.
“God is unique. All of this is haram [forbidden in Islam]. We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?” spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama said 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.”
Pleas have poured in for the Islamists to halt the destruction, reminiscent of the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan – an ancient Buddhist shrine on the Silk Road – in 2001 after branding them un-Islamic.
International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda Sunday warned that the destruction could amount to a war crime.
“My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: Stop the destruction of the religious buildings now,” Bensouda told AFP in an interview in Dakar.
“This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate.”
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon deplored the destruction of tombs, with his spokesman Martin Nesirky quoting him as saying: “Such attacks against cultural heritage sites are totally unjustified.”
Reached by telephone in an undisclosed location in northern Mali, a spokesman for the Islamic faction said that they do not recognize either the United Nations or the world court.
“The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Shariah,” said one of Ansar Dine’s spokesmen, Oumar Ould Hamaha.
“The destruction is a divine order,” he said. “It’s our Prophet who said that each time that someone builds something on top of a grave, it needs to be pulled back to the ground. We need to do this so that future generations don’t get confused and start venerating the saints as if they are God.”
Timbuktu was once a must-see for backpackers and package tour groups. Much of the city thrived on tourism, from young men who memorized the history of the tombs to act as tour guides to the numerous hotels and restaurants, nearly all of which are now closed.
Hamaha also said he didn’t care about the impact that their actions will have on tourism.
“We are against tourism. They foster debauchery,” he said.