MAL // Islamist militants in northern Mali today destroyed the 'sacred' door of one of Timbuktu's three ancient mosques after smashing seven tombs of muslim saints over the weekend, witnesses said.
"The Islamists have just destroyed the door to the entrance of the Sidi Yahya mosque... they tore the sacred door off which we never open," said a resident of the town.
A former tour guide in the once-popular tourist destination said: "They came with pick-axes, they cried 'Allah' and broke the door. It is very serious. Some of the people watching began crying."
Another man, a relative of a local imam (religious leader), said he had spoken to Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) who have gone on a rampage destroying cultural treasures after occupying the town for three months.
"Some said that the day this door is opened it will be the end of the world and they wanted to show that it is not the end of the world."
The door on the south end of the mosque has been closed for centuries due to local beliefs that to open it will bring misfortune.
It leads to a tomb of saints, however the Islamists appeared unaware of this as one witness said if they had known "they would have broken everything."
According to the website of the UN cultural agency (UNESCO) Sidi Yahya is one of Timbuktu's three great mosques and was built around 1400, dating back to the city's golden age as a desert crossroads and centre for learning.
The three mosques formed the 'university' of the fabled city, also known as the "City of 333 Saints".
The Islamists threatened to destroy the mosques over the weekend if they contained the remains of any saints, considering the shrines idolatrous.
They began their destruction of tombs on Saturday, after UNESCO put Timbuktu on its list of endangered world heritage sites.
International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Sunday warned that the destruction of historical and religious buildings could amount to a war crime.
"My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now," Bensouda told AFP in an interview in Dakar.
"This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate."