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Mali separatists ready to act over destruction of tombs

By the CNN Wire Staff
July 2, 2012 -- Updated 0056 GMT (0856 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tuareg rebels say they want the United States and France to help
  • Three tombs at a UNESCO World Heritage site in Timbuktu are reported destroyed
  • Islamist militants say they will continue the destruction

(CNN) -- A Mali separatist movement on Sunday said it was prepared to act against Islamic militants following the destruction of three sacred tombs in Timbuktu, and called on the United States and France "to help us kill them."

The tombs, a 15th-century shrine to Muslim saints, are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site in Timbuktu. UNESCO on Saturday condemned the destruction and called for it to stop.

The U.N. agency, which sponsors cultural, scientific and educational programs to further peaceful relations between nations, has received reports that three of the site's 16 mausoleums were "completely destroyed," UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova told CNN on Sunday. They are the mausoleums of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha Moya.

Islamic militants set fire to sacred tombs in Timbuktu

Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle said that Muslims on their way to Friday worship at the tombs were stopped and threatened by armed men from Ansar Dine, a militant group that seeks to impose strict Sharia law.

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Ansar Dine has threatened to continue the destruction.

"It's very, very bad for the Azawad people and the whole world what Ansar Dine has done in Timbuktu. We condemn it completely," Moussa Ag Assarid, spokesman for the Tuareg rebels' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, said Sunday. The group promotes a separate state it calls Azawad.

"We are ready and preparing to right with these terrorist organizations," Assarid said. "We will move soon, and (are) taking our arms and vehicles and material, but we still need help."

The MNLA claims Islamist extremist groups including Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and al Qaeda have seized control of Timbuktu along with the towns of Gao and Kidal, and have killed top MNLA leaders there.

"We call on the USA, France and all other countries who want to stand against Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and al Qaeda who are now holding Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal to help us kill them and help the people in those cities," Assarid said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is "concerned by the worsening security and humanitarian situation in northern Mali" and reports of the destruction, his office said in a statement. "Such attacks against cultural heritage sites are totally unjustified," the statement said.

Witnesses said the destruction began on Friday.

"The militants broke the doors and wooden gates to the grave and then used the cloth inside to set fire to the tomb," said Sankoum Sissoko of Timbuktu. "They started chasing people away, telling them they shouldn't worship a saint, a human being."

The World Heritage Committee on Thursday accepted the request of Mali's government to place Timbuktu on the list of endangered UNESCO sites. That request was reportedly what angered the militants, who accused UNESCO of cooperating with the government.

Timbuktu's treasures at risk

France, the former colonial power in Mali, also condemned the attack, calling for an end to the violence.

Mali was plunged into chaos by a military coup in March that ousted former President Amadou Toumani Toure. Since then, the Tuareg rebels and the Islamists have taken advantage of the uncertainty to attempt to seize control over the northern portion of the nation.

Rebels burn Timbuktu tomb

CNN's Brian Walker contributed to this report.

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