Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants have destroyed ancient Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, sparking international uproar and drawing attention to the unstable African nation. The ICC has denounced the attacks as ‘war crimes’.
Witnesses say armed men from the Islamist Ansar Dine group destroyed three mausoleums in the 11th-century city, an intellectual and spiritual capital throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries.
International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda says the militants’ actions constitute a war crime.
"My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now," Bensouda told the AFP in an interview in Dakar. "This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate."
The Rome Statute which established the ICC states in Article 8 that deliberate attacks against undefended civilian buildings which are not military objectives are a war crime.
"This includes attacks against historical monuments as well as destruction of buildings dedicated to religion," said Bensouda.
Adherents of radical Islam, Ansar Dine members are seeking to impose Sharia law across Mali. They consider the Sufi mausoleums idolatry. The group did not issue a statement about their actions but vowed to destroy all the monuments.
"They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pick-up trucks. The population is just looking on helplessly," local journalist Yeya Tandina told Reuters by telephone.
"The mausoleum doesn't exist anymore and the cemetery is as bare as a soccer pitch," local teacher Abdoulaye Boulahi said of the Mahmoud burial place, one of the shrines attacked. "There's about 30 of them breaking everything up with pick-axes and hoes. They've put their Kalashnikovs down by their side. These are shocking scenes for the people in Timbuktu," she said as quoted by Reuters.
UNESCO has strongly condemned the acts of vandalism and urged for an immediate halt. “There is no justification for such wanton destruction and I call on all parties engaged in the conflict to stop these terrible and irreversible acts," UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement.
Timbuktu, which is home to the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other madrasas, was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. The site comprises three mosques and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums.
The Malian government has vowed to issue an international arrest warrant for those responsible.
The destruction of the historic site comes as a sign of the political turmoil in Mali, which has lost control of the north of the country to an alliance of Tuareg insurgents and Islamist extremists. The rebel seizure of the north came in the aftermath of a March 22 coup in the capital, Bamako, in the south. The Islamists say they have ended their alliance with the Tuaregs and now claim to be in sole control of the territory seized.
Neighboring states have sought UN backing for a military intervention to stabilize the country but Security Council members say they need more details on the mission being planned.