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Al-Qaida linked fighters destroy 'end of the world' gate in Timbuktu

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A still from a video shows Islamist militants destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu on Sunday. The hardline Islamists who seized control of Timbuktu along with the rest of northern Mali three months ago, consider the shrines to be idolatrous.

World cultural body UNESCO was set to create a special fund to protect Mali's heritage on Tuesday after al-Qaida-linked Islamists attacked historic and religious landmarks in the city of Timbuktu for a third day, breaking down the door to a 15th century mosque that -- according to legend -- had to remain shut until the end of the world.

A UNESCO committee also called for a mission to go to Mali to work with local and national leaders to stop what it called "wanton destruction."

"In legend, it is said that the main gate of Sidi Yahya mosque will not be opened until the last day (of the world)," Alpha Abdoulahi, the town imam, told Reuters by telephone. 

Yet Islamists intent on erasing traces of what some regard as un-Islamic idolatry smashed down the door to the mosque early on Monday, saying they wanted to "destroy the mystery" of the ancient entrance, he said. 

"They offered me 50,000 CFA ($100) for repairs but I refused to take the money, saying that what they did is irreparable," Abdoulahi added.

In a statement emailed to msnbc.com Tuesday, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee called for a series of measures to help save Mali's ancient sites and condemned the "repugnant" destruction of Timbuktu's mausoleums.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has appealed for a halt to the attacks. 

AFP - Getty Images

A still from a video shows an Islamist militant celebrating and shouting after destroying an ancient shrine in Timbuktu on Sunday.

"There are mausoleums, there are mosques, there are manuscripts which represent enormous value for humanity and it is totally unacceptable what is happening there," Bokova said on Monday

The U.N. body seeks to protect places around the world it classifies as world heritage sites, arguing they are of special cultural significance and should be preserved for posterity. 

Government powerless
Mali's government in the capital Bamako about 630 miles south has condemned the destruction, but is powerless to halt them after its army was routed by rebels in April. It is still struggling to bolster a return to civilian rule after a March 22 coup that emboldened the rebel uprising further north. 

Witnesses: Islamists destroy ancient sites in Timbuktu

The attacks have been widely condemned inside Mali as well. 

"The 333 saints would be turning in their graves," the country's Les Echos newspaper wrote on Monday, referring to 333 revered Sufi imams, sheiks and scholars buried in Timbuktu. 

In the first installment of Rock Center's Hidden Planet series, Richard Engel travels to Mali, on the edge of the Sahara desert, to discover the city of Timbuktu.

"Today there are old women, old people in Timbuktu who say that maybe it is the end of the world," entrepreneur and former Timbuktu resident Male Dioum told Reuters.

Islamists of the Ansar Dine group say the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam in Timbuktu are idolatrous. They have so far destroyed at least eight of 16 listed mausoleums in the city, together with a number of tombs. 

Ansar Dine and well-armed allies, including al-Qaida splinter group MUJWA, have hijacked a separatist uprising by local Tuareg MNLA rebels and now control two-thirds of Mali's desert north, territory that includes the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. 

Romaric Ollo Hien / AFP - Getty Images, file

Islamists rebels approach Timbuktu in rebel-held northern Mali in April. "Members of AQIM, supported by (the armed Islamist group) Ansar Dine, have destroyed the tomb of Saint Sidi (Mahmoud Ben) Amar. They set fire to the tomb," an official told AFP in on May 5 on condition of anonymity. "They promised to destroy other tombs, Timbuktu is in shock. Now they want to take and control other tombs and manuscripts," the official said.

The size of the area under their control is bigger than France, heightening fears that Mali will become a jihadist haven. 

The MNLA rebels criticized the Islamists' destruction of holy sites, underlining a growing rift between the two groups that had formed an uneasy alliance to take over the north of the country. 

"The perpetrators of these heinous acts, their sponsors, and those who support them must be made accountable," MNLA spokesman Hama Ag Mahmoud told Reuters in an interview in Nouakchott

Desert tourism
Sufi shrines have been attacked by hardline Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year. The attacks also recall the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. 

According to Time magazine, those who adhere to a more orthodox brand of Islam tend to harbor a particular animosity to Sufism, who have a more mystical interpretation of the divine and a faith that is often rooted in pre-Islamic traditions and a reverence for saints and dead wise men.

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. 

In recent years, Mali had 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-Qaida-linked groups. 

F. Brinley Bruton and Reuters contributed to this report. 

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