BAMAKO Militants from the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine group destroyed mausoleums of Sufi saints with guns and pick-axes in the famed Mali city of Timbuktu for a second day, said witnesses on Sunday, ignoring international calls to halt the attacks.
The salafist Ansar Dine backs strict sharia, Islamic law, and considers the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam in Timbuktu to be idolatrous.
Sufi shrines have been attacked by hard-line Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year.
The group has threatened to destroy all of the 16 main Sufi mausoleum sites in Timbuktu despite international outcry. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has called for an immediate halt to the attacks.
Local journalist Yaya Tandina told Reuters that about 30 militants armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes destroyed three mausoleums of saints on Sunday.
"They had armed men guarding the door. Just like yesterday, the population did not react. They (local people) said we need to let them (the Islamists) do what they want, hoping that someday we will rebuild the tombs," Tandina said.
Residents said the destruction was halted around midday when some of the militants went to a mosque in the centre of the city, but it was unclear if they would continue.
"We are subject to religion and not to international opinion. Building on graves is contrary to Islam. We are destroying the mausoleums because it is ordained by our religion," Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, told Reuters by telephone from the northern Mali city on Sunday.
Timbuktu resident Hamed Mohamed said the Islamists destroyed the tombs of saints Sidi Elmety, Mahamane Elmety and Cheick Sidi Amar, all in the west of the city.
Ansar Dine is made up of Islamist fighters of various nationalities including Malians, Algerians and Nigerians.
"What shocks me the most is the presence of foreigners among them who do it with mockery while shouting Allah Akbar," Mohamed said.
"For me it is a declaration of war and a crime against our cultural heritage. It is time that the international community helped us."
Mali's defense minister condemned the attacks on Sunday and said there was a need for urgent action in north Mali.
"What is happening in Timbuktu is really outrageous. You can not want to be there for people and simultaneously undertake actions that offend their sensibilities," Colonel Yamoussa Camara said in Niamey after meeting with Niger's prime minister.
Ansar Dine and allies such as the al Qaeda splinter group MUJWA, have appropriated a separatist uprising by local Tuareg MNLA rebels and now control two-thirds of Mali's desert north territory with includes the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The size of the territory now under their control is bigger than France, heightening fears Mali will become a haven for jihadists.
The U.N. Security Council has said it would be ready to support military intervention by Mali's neighbors to help the country take back the north, but first needs more details of their plans.
The Timbuktu attack came days after UNESCO placed the city on its list of heritage sites in danger and recalls the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
Located on an old Saharan trading route that saw salt from the Arab north exchanged for gold and slaves from black Africa to the south, Timbuktu blossomed in the 16th century as an Islamic seat of learning, home to priests, scribes and jurists.
Mali had in recent years sought to create a desert tourism industry around Timbuktu but even before April's rebellion many tourists were being discouraged by a spate of kidnappings of Westerners in the region claimed by al Qaeda-linked groups.
(Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Sophie Hares)