UNESCO has warned that ancient Islamic city of Timbuktu, a historic outpost in northern Mali, could be damaged in fighting following its takeover by rebel soldiers.

The U.N. cultural agency's director-general Irina Bokova called on the Malian authorities and armed rebels to respect the country's heritage, recalling the obligation of countries to safeguard their heritage in times of war.

The Malian government on Sunday lost control of the fabled desert outpost of Timbuktu as Tuareg rebels swept across the country's north.

Bokova said: "Timbuktu's outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, are essential to the preservation of the people of Mali and our universal heritage."

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