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Islamists trash Timbuktu, Mali's fabled desert city (PHOTOS)

Islamist militants have destroyed several shrines in Timbuktu and smashed the sacred door of Sidi Yahia, a 15th-century mosque.

Islamist militants are trashing the ancient treasures of Timbuktu, Mali's fabled desert city, destroying shrines to Islamic saints and attacking a mosque.

The militants today broke down the door of Sidi Yahia, a 15th-century mosque, the BBC reported. Sidi Yahia is one of Timbuktu's three great mosques, and the door had previously been sealed for centuries as it led to the sacred tomb of saints.

The Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) militant group has seized control of Timbuktu, at the edge of the Sahara Desert, and is on a campaign to destroy historic mausoleums that it says are outside its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Ansar Dine, said to have links to Al Qaeda, has already destroyed seven shrines by smashing them with pick-axes, Agence France-Presse reported.

AFP said some Timbuktu residents sobbed as the militants broke down the Sidi Yahia mosque's sacred door.

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A spokesman for Ansar Dine told the BBC that the group hopes to "destroy every mausoleum in the city — all of them, without exception."

UNESCO, the UN's heritage agency, has placed Timbuktu on its list of heritage sites in danger, and has spoken out against the violence.

International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Sunday warned that the destruction of religious buildings could amount to war crimes.

Timbuktu, with its centuries-old mud mosques and ancient manuscripts held in the town's libraries, was until recently a tourist hotspot. Many visitors would come for a famous festival of Malian music, the Festival in the Desert.

But visitors have been deterred by tourist kidnappings by the North African branch of Al Qaeda.

More from GlobalPost: Timbuktu preserves historic manuscripts