BAMAKO, Mali (AP) - Islamic extremists destroyed another two mausoleums in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu on Tuesday, attacking a graveyard attached to the city's most picturesque mosque, according to a historian specializing in the area's heritage.
Salem Ould Elhadj, a researcher at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, said the members of the radical sect set out with picks and shovels to raze the tombs of two of Timbuktu's scholars, Baba Babadje and Mahamane Foulane, both of whom are considered saints.
Their mausoleums are in a cemetery attached to the nearly 700-year-old Djingareyber mosque, built in 1325. It's made of mud and resembles a ziggurat and is one of the most recognizable symbols of the fabled city, often reproduced on postcards.
Both the mosque and the tombs are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Ansar Dine, the sect which seized control of northern Mali last month, says they do not recognize any international law, only the law of the Quran. Spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha said that they have "divine orders" to destroy any grave that is more than 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) tall because anything taller encourages people to orient their prayer toward the deceased rather than toward God.
On Fridays it was common to see residents of Timbuktu heading to the cemetery to pay their respects to the saints, many of whom were ironically Quranic scholars. It was customary for people to take a few grains of sand from the tombs to bring back to their homes, a gesture intended to transport the blessings of the saints into their personal lives.
Hamaha says residents of Timbuktu need to get their priorities straight and stop confusing the saints with Allah. He said that the destruction, while painful, is for their own good.
Mali, once considered a stable democracy, has been upended by twin crises. In March, renegade soldiers overthrew the democratically elected president. In the aftermath of the coup, rebels including Ansar Dine grabbed control of the country's north. In June, the Islamic rebel faction declared themselves the de facto rulers of the north, saying they plan to impose Shariah law in the territory, an area as large as France.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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