UPDATE 2-Mali Islamists destroy holy Timbuktu sites
* Witnesses say Ansar Dine fighters take pick-axes to sites
* Attacks comes days after UNESCO danger warning
* Islamists now have upper hand in Mali’s north (Adds further details, switches dateline to BAMAKO, adds byline)
By Adama Diarra
BAMAKO, June 30 (Reuters) – Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes began destroying prized mausoleums of saints in the UNESCO-listed northern city of Timbuktu on Saturday in front of shocked locals, witnesses said.
The Islamist Ansar Dine group backs strict sharia, Islamic law, and considers the shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam idolatrous. Sufi shrines have also been attacked by hardline Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year.
The attack came just days after UNESCO placed Timbuktu on its list of heritage sites in danger and will recall the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
“They have already completely destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud (Ben Amar) and two others. They said they would continue all day and destroy all 16,” local Malian journalist Yeya Tandina said by telephone of the 16 most prized resting grounds of local saints in the town.
“They are armed and have surrounded the sites with pick-up trucks. The population is just looking on helplessly,” he said, adding that the Islamists were currently taking pick-axes to the mausoleum of Sidi El Mokhtar, another cherished local saint.