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Islamists defile ancient tombs in Timbuktu

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Legend held that the main gate of Timbuktu's Sidi Yahya mosque, a wood-panelled affair with metalwork cast in the shape of crescent moons, would open only at the end of time.

In a metaphorical sense that is what Islamist militants apparently linked to al-Qaida, who now control the ancient trading post in northern Mali, have unleashed on the city. Since July 2, they have been battering down the ancient entrance with picks and shovels to "destroy its mystery" as part of a city-wide program of cultural vandalism inspired by religious zeal that has left inhabitants aghast with horror.

Destroyed, too, are eight mausoleums and a number of saints' tombs. More wreckage is feared.

"Everyone is furious with the Islamists," says Assane Traore, a tour guide in happier times. "It's as if they are hacking off parts of our bodies."

Some residents say they want to demonstrate against "the bearded ones," Traore adds, but many are too fearful.

In its heyday, Timbuktu was a hub of learning that grew rich on duties from the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, salt and slaves. When the mysticism of wandering Sufis fused with pre-Islamic beliefs, it became known as "the City of 333 Saints."

Two armed groups that dominate the town -- Ansar Dine and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known in security circles as AQIM -- consider such reverence un-Islamic idolatry.

"All of this is haram (forbidden)," scolded a militant spokesman, who threatened to destroy every tomb in the city "without exception."

Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency, has called the demolition "an attack against the physical evidence that peace and dialogue are possible."

Scholars fear tens of thousands of brittle manuscripts collected in the city in its zenith, arguably Africa's greatest ancient literary heritage, are likewise at risk.

Like Afghanistan's Taliban, who turned their tanks on two colossal statues of the Buddha in 2001, the Malian jihadists' iconoclasm may serve an ulterior purpose. They may want the world to know Timbuktu is now theirs, and no one can stop them. They have routed the Tuareg separatists whose rebellion they hijacked, driving their fighters into the desert and their leaders into exile after a bloody battle at the end of June.

Some 670 kilometres to the south, Mali's capital, Bamako, is still in disarray after a military coup in March. The 15-country Economic Community of West African States, the most influential regional group, talks of military intervention. Any effective peacekeeping force would need UN or French military co-operation, however, which is not yet in the offing.

Meanwhile, AQIM and its allies threaten to attack any capital whose government sends troops. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an AQIM splinter, claimed responsibility for a June 28 suicide bombing in Algeria that seemed to underline the threat.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2012 A10

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