BAMAKO // The International Criminal Court's prosecutor yesterday warned Islamist rebels to stop destroying ancient ancient mausoleums in Timbuktu city yesterday, saying it amounted to a war crime.
"My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate," said Fatou Bensouda.
The Mali insurgents, armed with guns and pickaxes, continued to destroy ancient mausoleums in Timbuktu yesterday, in the second day of attacks on the Unesco heritage sites, witnesses said.
The salafist Ansar Dine group, that has been linked with Al Qaeda, backs Islamic law and considers the shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam to be idolatrous.
Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Abu Mohamed said yesterday that the group would continue the destruction they started on Saturday.
"We're going to destroy everything before we apply Sharia in this city," he said.
Residents said the group has threatened to destroy all of the 16 main mausoleum sites in Timbuktu despite an international outcry over the attacks. The Unesco director general, Irina Bokova, has called for an immediate halt to the attacks.
Armed with Kalashnikovs and pickaxes, about 30 militants destroyed three centuries-old mausoleums of saints yesterday, said a local journalist, Yaya Tandina.
"They had armed men guarding the door. Just like yesterday, the population did not react. They said we need to let them do what they want, hoping that someday we will rebuild the tombs," Ms Tandina said.
Timbuktu resident Hamed Mohamed said the Islamists destroyed the tombs of Sidi Elmety, Mahamane Elmety and Cheick Sidi Amar, all in the west of the city.
Ansar Dine is made up of Islamist fighters of various nationalities including Malians, Algerians and Nigerians. "What shocks me the most is the presence of foreigners among them who do it with mockery while shouting Allahu Akbar," Mr Mohamed said. "For me it is a declaration of war and a crime against our cultural heritage. It is time that the international community helped us."
Ms Tandina and other witnesses said Ansar Dine had on Saturday destroyed the mausoleums of three local saints - Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi El Mokhtar and Alfa Moya - and at least seven tombs. The attack came days after Unesco placed Timbuktu on its list of heritage sites in danger.
* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse and Associated Press