By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - An Islamist fighter caused irreparable damage to Africa's cultural heritage by destroying religious sites in the ancient city of Timbuktu during the 2012 conflict in Mali, international prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a former trainee teacher, had led and personally taken part in the attacks on nine mausoleums and mosques in the city with pick-axes and crowbars, prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) said.
Al-Mahdi -- an ethnic Tuareg who prosecutors say belonged to the Ansar Dine militant group, an ally of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- is the first person to be charged with destroying cultural artifacts by the court.
"This crime affects the soul and spirit of the people," said prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, comparing the attacks on the ancient seat of learning to the destruction wrought by Islamic State militants on Palmyra in Syria and the Taliban's 2001 defacement of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.
"These were sites dedicated to religion and historic monuments and did not constitute military objectives," she said, adding their destruction hit "the deepest and most intimate part of a human being, their faith."
At the hearing, prosecutors must convince judges, led by Kenya's Joyce Aluoch, that they have marshaled sufficient evidence to justify a full trial.
The ICC has been examining events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels seized part of the north, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law. French and Malian troops pushed them back the following year.
Known as the "City of 333 Saints", Timbuktu was a trading hub and spiritual center by the 14th century, playing a key role in the spread of Islam across the continent. The mausoleums of those scholars remain important pilgrimage sites.
Al-Mahdi, who was wearing a frilled white shirt and rimless spectacles and rose to confirm he understood the charges, cut a very different figure from the warlords and political leaders who have previously appeared before the international court accused of killings and human rights abuses.
Bensouda said Al-Mahdi, known to his followers as a religious scholar, had helped plan and lead the attacks, implementing rulings of the Islamic Tribunal set up by the rebels occupying Mali.
Most of the associates with whom he had planned the attacks were now dead, she said.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Janet Lawrence)