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Islamists Attack & Try to Destroy Historical Tombs & Protected Sites in Timbuktu

"...their control of the vast north could offer al-Qaeda a safe haven in the region."

TIMBUKTU, Mali (The Blaze/AP) -- A resident of the northern Mali city of Timbuktu says Islamists who control the town are trying to destroy tombs classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

(Related: ‘Islamic Police’: Islamists ‘Invade’ Mali & Ban Traditional Music, Alcohol, Unveiled Women & More)

Ali Yattara said Saturday that the Islamists began attacking the saints' tombs with shovels. He says they said they were responding to UNESCO's request last week that the sites be put on the organization's "in danger" list.

UNESCO has said that two World Heritage sites in Mali -- Timbuktu and the tomb of Askia -- are threatened by conflict between competing rebel groups who have taken over the north. The San Francisco Chronicle reports more about the UNESCO protections:

"Timbuktu was an intellectual and spiritual capital and a center for the propagation of Islam throughout Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries," UNESCO described the city now engulfed in fighting among government troops and two rival rebel forces. "Its three great mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, recall Timbuktu's golden age."

The mud-walled Tomb of Askia, built by the Emperor of Songhai in 1495 in his capital Gao, is described by UNESCO on its website as bearing testimony "to the power and riches of the empire that flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries through its control of the trans-Saharan trade." Both sites are examples of the monumental mud-building traditions of the West African Sahel, the agency said.

Since Taureg separatists staged a coup in March against the Mali government based in Bamako, fighting between the Tauregs and the fundamentalist Islamic Ansar Dine faction for control of the northern treasures has raged around the historic venues.

Islamist fighters with ties to al-Qaida have declared that they control the northern half of Mali after driving out an ethnic Tuareg separatist group. The Telegraph has more about the horrific events unfolding in this portion of the African nation:

Residents of Timbuktu have since reported that Islamists have ordered women to wear full veils, whipped smokers and destroyed shopkeepers’ stocks of cigarettes.

An 18-year-old pregnant woman and her boyfriend were both lashed 100 times as punishment for “having a child out of wedlock”.

Ansar Dine and other Islamist factions in the north are backed by al-Qaeda’s north African branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Analysts fear that their control of the vast north could offer al-Qaeda a safe haven in the region.

Timbuktu was a center of Islamic learning as far back as the 12th century.

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