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BAMAKO: Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Timbuktu yesterday broke down the door to a 15th-century mosque that locals believed had to stay shut until the end of the world, defying international calls to halt the destruction of holy sites in the Unesco-listed city.
In a third day of attacks on historic and religious landmarks that Unesco has called “wanton destruction”, the Islamists targeted the ancient Sidi Yahya mosque as they tried to erase traces of what they regard as un-Islamic idolatry.
“In legend it is said that the main gate of Sidi Yahya mosque will not be opened until the last day (of the world),” said Alpha Abdoulahi, the town’s imam.
Eight Islamist fighters had smashed down the door to the mosque early yesterday, saying they wanted to “destroy the mystery” of the ancient entrance, he said.
“They offered me 50 000 CFA (R408 000) for repairs but I refused to take the money, saying that what they did is irreparable.”
Islamists of the Ansar Dine group say the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam in Timbuktu are idolatrous. They have so far destroyed at least eight of 16 listed mausoleums in the city, together with a number of tombs.
Ansar Dine and well-armed allies, including al-Qaeda splinter group Mujwa, have hijacked a separatist uprising by local Tuareg MNLA rebels and now control two-thirds of Mali’s desert north, territory that includes the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The size of the area under their control is bigger than France, heightening fears that Mali will become a jihadist haven.
Sufi shrines have been attacked by hardline Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year. The attacks also recall the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan.
Mali’s government in the capital, Bamako, about 1 000km south, has condemned the attacks but is powerless to halt them after its army was routed by rebels in April. – Reuters