The Islamist Ansar Dine group on Tuesday attacked Timbuktu’s ancient Sidi Yahia mosque, in a wave of destruction aimed at Sufi shrines in northern Mali, prompting condemnation from the International Criminal Court (ICC) and possible ‘war crime’ charges.
Militants targeted the Sidi Yahia mosque, one of three historic Timbuktu mosques, because it contained tombs of Sufi saints.
Ansar Dinse spokesperson, Sanda Ould Bamana, told the BBC that they believe the religious sites were against Shari’a law because their tombs were taller than 15cm.
Continuous attacks on historic monuments in northern Mali have caused an international outcry among international aid organisations as well as national civil rights groups.
The International Criminal Court’s Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the AFP in an interview that the ICC was looking into charging the Islamist militants with “war crimes” for the destruction of the monuments.
Officials with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), at an annual meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Sunday, called for restraint between the warring parties in Mali.
“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,” said Yeleonor Mitrofanova, who chaired the meeting, the AFP reported.
Mitrofanova’s appeals were also echoed by Mali’s Culture and Tourism Minister Fadima Diallo who said she was “exhorting” UN members to take action in order to put an end to “crimes of cultural heritage,” according to AFP.
UNESCO listed the city of Timbuktu as an endangered heritage site on Thursday, as fighting raged on, following a military coup in March.
Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, has voiced dire concerns over the attacks on these Sufi monuments, calling for international intervention, according to the Project on Middle East Democracy organisation.
The wave of attacks on shrines and mausoleums started early this week, after heavy clashes between the secular Tuareg Rebels’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group affiliated with Ansar Dine.
According to AP, Ansar Dine announced on Friday that they have taken full control of northern Mali.
The NMLA refuted this, claiming that although they lost the major cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal to Ansar Dine, they were still in control of 90 percent of the north.
These two groups have not always been in opposition to one another.
They initially fought together, taking advantage of the military coup in March to claim an independent state, “Azawad”, in the North of Mali.
Yet, as the Islamic militant group started imposing Shari’a law, clashes began between the two factions.
The situation prompts fears that Mali will become haven for terrorist groups, with attacks on neighbouring countries are already emerging.
Mali-based Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has claimed responsibility for an attack on a police station in Ouargla, Algeria, which took place last Friday.
In a statement to AFP they the Islamist group accused Algeria of encouraging the Tuareg rebels to go to war with their group.