Skip to main content

Islamic militants set fire to sacred tombs in Timbuktu

By the CNN Wire Staff
July 2, 2012 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Islamist militants destroy an ancient shrine in Timbuktu on July 1 in a still from a video. Islamist militants destroy an ancient shrine in Timbuktu on July 1 in a still from a video.
Islamists set fire to sacred tombs in Timbuktu
Islamists set fire to sacred tombs in Timbuktu
Islamists set fire to sacred tombs in Timbuktu
  • The tombs are a 15th century shrine to Muslim saints
  • The Ansar Dine militant group has destroyed some of the tombs
  • The Islamist group says people shouldn't worship saints
  • Timbuktu is a World Heritage site

(CNN) -- UNESCO on Saturday condemned the destruction of three sacred tombs in Timbuktu, Mali, by Islamic militants who say they will destroy more.

The tombs, a 15th century shrine to Muslim saints, are part of a World Heritage site in Timbuktu.

The destruction started Friday.

"The militants broke the doors and wooden gates to the grave and then used the cloth inside to set fire to the tomb," said Sankoum Sissoko, a resident in Timbuktu. "They started chasing people away, telling them they shouldn't worship a saint, a human being."

Sacred tombs of Timbuktu destroyed
Militants vow to destroy more tombs
Mali rebel groups unite
Mali plunges into chaos

He witnessed the attack together with other Timbuktu residents who had come to the tombs to pray.

Timbuktu's treasures at risk

"The Islamists know a lot of people visit the grave on Fridays. That's why they attack on those days," Sissoko said.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called for the militants to stop the destruction immediately. The U.N. agency sponsors cultural, scientific, and educational programs to further peaceful relations between nations.

"Reports that the Mausoleums of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya have been destroyed is extremely distressing," she said. "There is no justification for such wanton destruction and I call on all parties engaged in the conflict to stop these terrible and irreversible acts, to exercise their responsibility and protect this invaluable cultural heritage for future generations."

Timbuktu Muslims on their way to Friday worship at the tombs were stopped and threatened by armed men from Ansar Dine, a militant group that seeks to impose strict Sharia law, Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle said.

"The Islamists have surrounded he tombs with their cars after chasing people away and at the moment they're destroying the mausoleum of Sidi El Moctar," Halle said.

According to several witnesses the militants said they wouldn't stop until the destruction was complete.

"Today we will destroy all the mausoleums," Ansar Dine representative Sanda Ould Boumama said.

Just on Thursday, the World Heritage Committee had accepted the request of the Malian government to place Timbuktu on UNESCO's sites in danger.

France, the former colonial power in Mali, also condemned the attack.

"We call for an end to this violence and this intolerance," France said in a statement.

Journalist Katarina Hoije contributed to this report

Part of complete coverage on
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0009 GMT (0809 HKT)
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1801 GMT (0201 HKT)
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0507 GMT (1307 HKT)
As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0006 GMT (0806 HKT)
Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.