BAMAKO - The militants, swinging pick-axes, destroyed ancient tombs of Muslim saints in Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu on Saturday, sparking international condemnation.
Ansar Dine and other Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups have imposed strict law since sweeping across northern Mali in the chaotic aftermath of a March 22 coup in the capital Bamako.
"They have raped Timbuktu today. It is a crime," said a source close to a local imam in Timbuktu, known as the "City of 333 Saints".
Witnesses told AFP that the extremists had destroyed the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya. In addition to three historic mosques, Timbuktu is home to 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, according to the UNESCO website.
A spokesman for the group, Sanda Ould Boumama, vowed: "Ansar Dine will today destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception."
"This is tragic news for us all," Alissandra Cummins, chair of UNESCO's executive committee, said in a statement to AFP in Russia, where the body is meeting this week, describing the attacks as "wanton damage".
"I appeal to all those engaged in the conflict in Timbuktu to exercise their responsibility - for the sake of future generations, spare the legacy of their past," she pleaded.
Mali's government in Bamako denounced the "destructive fury", comparing it to war crimes and threatened action on the national and international level.
Former colonial power France condemned "the systematic violation of these places of reverence and prayer" and appealed "for an end to this violence and this intolerance".
The destruction is reminiscent of the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan - an ancient Buddhist and world heritage site on the Silk Road - in March 2001.
A witness said that early Saturday morning, about "30 fighters of Ansar Dine moved towards the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud" in the city's north.
The Ansar Dine spokesman suggested Saturday's action was in retaliation for a UNESCO decision Thursday to put the World Heritage site, a cradle of Islamic learning founded in the fifth century, on its endangered list.
UNESCO's general director Irina Bokova confirmed that the militants from the Ansar Dine group have destroyed three sacred tombs in Timbuktu, declaring in a statement that "there is no justification for such wanton destruction."
Witnesses in Timbuktu said that the gangs had destroyed the mausoleum of a saint whose 15th century tomb was already desecrated in May by members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), another of the groups in control in the north.
The UN cultural agency said its decision to place both the town and the nearby Tomb of Askia in Gao on its List of World Heritage in Danger "aims to raise cooperation and support for the sites threatened by the armed conflict".