BAMAKO, Mali — A member of an al-Qaida-linked group in North Africa attacked and burned a saint's tomb classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in north Timbuktu, residents said Sunday.
Mahamane Cisse and other witnesses who went to pray at the tomb said that a Mauritanian member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and some members of his group on Friday tore off the doors of the tomb and burned some items, including a mosquito net on the tomb.
The tomb for the saint Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar is among 16 cemeteries and mausoleums classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Timbuktu, according to a UNESCO website. The city has 333 tombs for saints.
Timbuktu also has mosques classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Aghaly Yattara said that one of worshippers at the tomb tried to stop the destruction.
"AQIM reacted by slapping the faithful man, binding him and putting him in the back of their car to bring to their base in Timbuktu," Yattara said, adding that they did eventually release the man.
Yattara also said that members of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group that wants to impose Shariah law in the north, told the man to not attack the tombs. But the group has not officially responded to the attack, and diplomats in Bamako have said Ansar Dine has links with AQIM.
Tension has been building between the people in Timbuktu and the Islamists who occupied the city in April, including Ansar Dine.
Tuareg separatist fighters and Islamic militants took advantage of the chaos caused by the coup in Bamako in late March to quickly advance and capture the three main towns in the north of Mali. Mali government forces fled south without putting up any major resistance.
Since, Islamist fighters are asserting control over the Texas-sized northern half of the country. The Islamists, some of whom are foreigners, are imposing strict religious law, setting up a possible showdown with Tuareg nationalist rebels who say they want a secular state and want the foreign fighters gone.
Pictures of unveiled women in Timbuktu have either been torn down or covered over with black paint, according to a member of the Malian parliament for the city. The Islamists have also cut the signal for national TV broadcasts to the city because they consider the women not properly covered and don't approve of the music the station plays.
Islamists have attacked businesses selling alcohol, smashing bottles of beer and spirits, according to residents who say it's no longer possible to buy alcoholic drinks. Islamists have also performed public floggings, according to residents and Human Rights Watch.
In a region where residents generally practice a moderate form of Islam, many are having trouble adapting to the new rules.
Ansar Dine — Arabic for Supporters of Islam — was formed at the end of last year and joined the Tuareg rebel group in chasing government forces out of the north, but Ansar Dine now says that it is against north Mali becoming independent.
Western diplomats in Bamako, the capital, say Ansar Dine has links with AQIM, which has kidnapped Europeans and attacked government forces in Mali and beyond. Senior leaders from AQIM have been seen openly in towns in north Mali since Ansar Dine gained some control of them. Diplomats say that fighters sometimes move between the two groups.
Another group that is less well known than AQIM, and may be a spinoff from that group, is the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which has also been bringing Shariah law to north Mali.
Mali has also been battling insecurity in the capital, Bamako.
A group of soldiers toppled Mali's democratically elected president in March. The junta leaders then handed power over to an interim government in April, but have not stepped aside. Last week, some soldiers attempted a countercoup, but all the strategic locations they managed to gain control of were quickly recaptured by forces loyal to the junta leader.
West Africa's regional bloc on Thursday said it would soon deploy forces to Mali. The bloc, known as ECOWAS, has previously said it intends to send about 3,000 troops to Mali to help retrain and re-equip the country's military following the political upheaval. The junta quickly rejected the plan, though, saying not a single foreign soldier would step foot in Mali.