Bamako: A new member of an Islamist group in north Mali attacked and burned a saint`s tomb classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Timbuktu, the spokesman for the group said on Sunday.
The act threatens to raise tensions that have been building between residents and the Islamists who occupied the city in April, and raises worries that instability could lead to the destruction of historic sites in the fabled town known as an ancient seat of Islamic learning.
"A new member of the Ansar Dine group came to Timbuktu and went to the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar on Friday to tell the faithful praying there that the saints" should not be adored, Sanda Ould Boumama, spokesman for Ansar Dine, said.
Boumama refused to say whether Ansar Dine supported the act or not, and that since the man was a new member it must investigate what happened.
Residents at the scene had earlier described the man who attacked the tomb as a member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Diplomats in Bamako have said Ansar Dine has links with AQIM.
Mahamane Cisse and other witnesses who went to pray at the tomb said that a Mauritanian member of AQIM and some members of his group on Friday tore off the doors of the tomb and burned some items, including a mosquito net on the tomb.
The tomb for Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar is among 16 cemeteries and mausoleums classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Timbuktu, according to a UNESCO website. The city has 333 tombs for saints.
Timbuktu also has mosques classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Aghaly Yattara said that one of worshippers at the tomb tried to stop the destruction, but men bound him and put him in the back of their car. He said that they eventually released the man.
Religious leaders have called on the Islamic High Council of Mali to denounce this act, and young residents of Timbuktu say they will stage sit-ins in the coming days so that other tombs of saints are not desecrated, said Kader Kalil Ascofare, the director of radio Bouctou, a local radio station.
Timbuktu has been honoured as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its architecture and as a spiritual and intellectual capital for the propagation of Islam on the continent during a golden age that began as early as the 13th century and ended around the 16th century. It remains home to the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other Islamic schools.
UNESCO warned in early April that fighting could damage the historic outpost in northern Mali, and called on Malian authorities and armed rebels to respect the country`s heritage, recalling the obligation of countries to safeguard their heritage in times of war.
Timbuktu is home to a library of ancient, camel-skin bound manuscripts covering science, astrology, medicine, history, theology, grammar and geography.
Tuareg separatist fighters and Islamic militants took advantage of the chaos caused by the coup in Bamako in late March to quickly advance and capture the three main towns in the north of Mali. Mali government forces fled south without putting up any major resistance.