SAINT PETERSBURG: The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO on Saturday deplored the "tragic" destruction by Mali fundamentalists of shrines in the city of Timbuktu that were listed as world heritage just days earlier.
The world's main watchdog over protecting some of history's greatest treasures interrupted its annual session in Saint Petersburg to express horror at the news filtering in from the fabled West African town.
"This is tragic news for us all and even more so for the inhabitants of Timbuktu who have cherished and preserved this monument over more than seven centuries," session chairwoman Yeleonor Mitrofanova of Russia told the gathering.
"I appeal to all those engaged in the conflict in Timbuktu to exercise their responsibility -- for the sake of future generations, spare the legacy of their past," she pleaded.
The Paris-based agency was also expected to issue a statement later in the day to address threats by Islamist militants from the Ansar Dine group to leave no trace of any of the shrines in the storied caravan town.
"Ansar Dine will today destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception," spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama told AFP through an interpreter from the city.
He added: "God is unique. All of this is haram (or forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?"
A witness told AFP the group had already destroyed the ancient tomb of at least one revered Muslim figure in a town also known as the "City of 333 Saints".
The news came as a particularly brutal blow to UNESCO because the heritage committee had only on Thursday placed both Timbuktu and the nearby Tomb of Askia on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
"I call on all the members of the (UNESCO) committee, who represent the international community, to join me in expressing sadness and concern for the survival of this important World Heritage property," Mitrofanova told the session while reading from an official UNESCO statement.
The destruction in Mali is reminiscent of the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, an ancient Buddhist site on the Silk Road, in March 2001, after branding them un-Islamic.
Mali has been gripped by deadly chaos since a March 22 coup effectively incapacitated the government's army.
Tuareg rebels who oppose the state spearheaded the initial armed takeover of the north of the country. They were soon joined by the Ansar Dine 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 -- home to the Tomb of Askia -- and Timbuktu into focal points of unrest.