BAMAKO // Hardline Islamists occupying northern Mali went on the rampage in Timbuktu on Saturday, attacking shrines to Muslim saints and threatening to destroy every religious site in the fabled city.
Armed militants from the fundamentalist Ansar Dine group have already destroyed the ancient tomb of at least one revered Muslim figures on Saturday, just days after UNESCO named the city an endangered world heritage site.
"They have raped Timbuktu today. It is a crime," said a source close to a local imam after the onslaught began early Saturday.
Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups which seized control of the vast desert north of Mali in the chaotic aftermath of a March coup in Bamako, said no religious site would be safe in Timbuktu.
"Ansar Dine will today destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception," spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama told AFP through an interpreter from the city.
UNESCO put the World Heritage site, a cradle of Islamic learning known as the "City of 333 Saints", on its endangered list on Thursday because of the continued unrest in the north.
The Ansar Dine spokesman suggested Saturday's action was in retaliation for the UNESCO move.
"God is unique. All of this is haram (or forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?" he said, declaring that Ansar Dine was acting "in the name of God."
Witnesses in Timbuktu said 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, one of the groups in control in the north.
"As I am speaking to you, Islamists from Ansar Dine have destroyed the mausoleum of saint Sidi Mahmoud," one witness told AFP.
"They are now in the process of destroying the mausoleum (of Sidi Moctar)," said a local journalist. "They have said they will destroy everything."
Islamic and tribal Tuareg groups took advantage of the March 22 military coup in Bamako to push government forces out of northern Mali, an area the size of France and Belgium, including the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
UNESCO, the world's main watchdog over the safety of some of history's greatest treasures and most threatened cultural exhibits, designated Timbuktu a heritage site in 1988.
Beyond its historic mosques, Timbuktu has 16 cemeteries and mausolea, according to the UNESCO website.
It is also home to nearly 100,000 ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 12th century, preserved in family homes and private libraries under the care of religious scholars.
At its height in the 1500s, the city, a Niger River port at the edge of the Sahara 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) north of Bamako, was the key intersection for salt traders travelling from the north and gold traders from the south.