Islamist rebels in northern Mali smashed four more tombs of ancient Muslim saints in Timbuktu on Sunday as the International Criminal Court (ICC) warned that their campaign of destruction was a war crime.
The hardline Islamists who seized control of Timbuktu along with the rest of northern Mali three months ago, consider the shrines to be idolatrous and have wrecked seven tombs in two days.
Mali’s government and the international community have expressed horror and outrage at the destruction of cultural treasures in the fabled city, an ancient desert crossroads and center of learning known as the “City of 333 Saints.”
“My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: Stop the destruction of the religious buildings now,” ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in an interview in Dakar.
“This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate,” she said, adding that Mali is a signatory to the Rome Statute which established the ICC, which 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,” Bensouda said.
On Saturday the Islamists destroyed the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya, and on Sunday attacked four more, including Cheikh el-Kebir’s mausoleum, as residents stood by helplessly.
The destruction at the Djingareyber cemetery ended in the late afternoon, with four tombs destroyed. The cemetery is situated in the south of Timbuktu in the suburb of the eponymous Djingareyber Mosque built from mud in 1327.
Several saints are buried inside the city’s three historic mosques. Timbuktu is also home to 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, according to the UNESCO Web site.
The Islamist fighters from Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) are among the al-Qaeda-linked armed groups which occupied the north of Mali in the chaos that emerged after a March coup in Bamako.
Their presence in Timbuktu and continued violence in the region prompted UNESCO on Thursday to list the city as an endangered site.
“God is unique. All of this is haram [forbidden in Islam]. We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?” Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama said on Saturday.
He said the group was acting in the name of God and would “destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception.”
Malian Culture and Tourism Minister Fadima Diallo on Sunday urged the UN to take action to preserve her country’s heritage.
“Mali exhorts the UN to take concrete steps to stop these crimes against the cultural heritage of my people,” she told UNESCO’s annual meeting in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deplored the destruction of tombs, with his spokesman Martin Nesirky quoting him as saying: “Such attacks against cultural heritage sites are totally unjustified.”
Ban also reiterated his support for the ongoing efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and countries in the region to “help the government and people of Mali resolve the current -crisis through dialogue.”
UNESCO session chairwoman Yeleonor Mitrofanova told a meeting in Saint Petersburg that the destruction was tragic news.
In a matter of months Mali has gone from one of west Africa’s stable democracies to a nation gripped by deadly chaos.
The March 22 coup eased the way for Tuareg separatist rebels — descendants of those who founded Timbuktu in the fifth century — to carry out the armed takeover of an area larger than France they consider their homeland.
However, the previously unknown Ansar Dine group fighting on their flanks seized the upper hand, openly allied with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and have since pushed the Tuareg from all positions of power.