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Islamists continue destroying Timbuktu heritage

DAKAR, Senegal — Muslim extremists continued destroying the heritage of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu Monday, razing tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque, despite a growing international outcry.

The International Criminal Court has described the destruction of the city’s patrimony as a possible war crime, while UNESCO’s committee on world heritage was holding a special session this week to address the pillaging of the site, one of the few cultural sites in sub-Saharan Africa that is listed by the agency.

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The Islamic faction, known as Ansar Dine, or ‘‘Protectors of the Faith,’’ seized control of Timbuktu last week after ousting the Tuareg rebel faction that had invaded northern Mali alongside Ansar Dine’s soldiers three months ago.

Over the weekend, fighters screaming ‘‘Allah Akbar’’ descended on the cemeteries holding the remains of Timbuktu’s Sufi saints, and systematically began destroying the six most famous tombs.

Reached by telephone in an undisclosed location in northern Mali, a spokesman for the faction said the group does not recognize either the United Nations or the world court.

‘‘The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Sharia,’’ said spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha.

‘‘The destruction is a divine order,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s our prophet who said that each time that someone builds something on top of a grave, it needs to be pulled back to the ground. We need to do this so that future generations don’t get confused, and start venerating the saints as if they are God.’’

Among the tombs the fighters destroyed is that of Sidi Mahmoudou, a saint who died in 955, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, website. In addition, Monday they set upon one of the doors of the Sidi Yahya, a mosque built around 1400. Local legend held that the gate leading to the cemetery would open only on the final day at the end of time.

Shamil Jeppie, who heads the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, says that the destruction in Mali is analogous to the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan.

The Wahabi interpretation of Islam that Ansar Dine — like the Taliban — espouses is a narrow version of the faith, and stands in contrast to what Jeppie says is the history of Islamic learning.

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