Islamist fighters linked to Al Qaeda have damaged shrines of Muslim saints in Mali’s historical town of Timbuktu, four days after the UN placed the town on a list of sites in danger due to escalating violence in the country’s northern region.
Fighters from the Ansar Dine group, which holds sway in much of the territory, attacked the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud, one of 16 such shrines in the town, witnesses told Reuters news agency.
The witness said the Islamists were also attacking the mausoleum of Sidi El Mokhtar, another important local saint, with pick-axes.
According to the BBC, some Muslims, especially Sufi mystics, consider shrines to be an acceptable element of Muslim worship. Islamists, however, regard them as idolatrous.
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According to Agence France-Presse, fighters from Al Qaeda’s North African franchise – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – have been accused of destroying Timbuktu’s tomb of St Sidi Amar after taking over the town in late March.
Many examples of unique architectural structures made out mud and wood hundreds of years ago – as well as about 700,000 ancient manuscripts – are to be found in Timbuktu, which lies on the edge of the Sahara Desert, the BBC reported.
Timbuktu was until recently a tourist hotspot, with visitors flocking to a famous festival of Malian music, the Festival in the Desert, which attracted U2 frontman Bono in January.
But visitors have been detered by tourist kidnappings by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
More from GlobalPost: Mali Islamists announce plans to keep destroying Timbuktu