By Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian fighters from the Ansar Dine Islamist group attacked and burned the tomb of one of the town's saints, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, residents and a regional official said on Saturday.
The militants broke off doors, windows and wooden gates from the grave and burned them, they said, in the first reported attack on a shrine in Mali.
El Hadj Baba Haidara, an elected member of parliament from Timbuktu told Reuters some young people were discussing how to react despite being unarmed.
"There is a risk the people may revolt because this is something that affects their dignity. This tomb is sacred, it is too difficult to bear," Haidara said.
Ansar Dine, along with Tuareg rebels and other armed groups, swept through northern Mali in March and April, seizing the northern half of the country and its ancient towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal after the government collapsed in a March 22 coup.
While the rebel MNLA has declared an independent state in the north, al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine - led by veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly - has rejected that idea and said the group's objective was to impose Islamic law in Mali.
In 2001, the Taliban dynamited and destroyed two 6th century statues of Buddha measuring 55 and 37 meters (180 and 121 feet) high, carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
Timbuktu Muslims on their way to Friday worship at the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar and those of other saints were stopped and threatened by armed men from Ansar Dine, one resident said.
"What you are doing is haram! (forbidden). Ask God directly rather than the dead," one of the armed men told the residents, according to Ahmed Ibrahim, a resident who witnessed the scene.
Some Islamists view shrines as idolatry but traditional Muslims, especially Sufis, see shrines as part of accepted Islamic custom. Salafists have attacked several Sufi shrines in Egypt and Libya in the past year.
"After uttering those words, three of them (armed men) entered the mausoleum, ripped and burnt pieces of white clothing that surrounded the tomb of the saint in front of everyone," Ibrahim said.
Haidara told Reuters the act by the Islamist group could spark a violent reaction from the population, and that he had urged the U.N. body to help protect Timbuktu's heritage sites.
"They attacked the grave, broke doors, windows and wooden gates that protect it. They brought it outside and burn it, because to build a tomb is contrary to the principles of Islam," he said. The men said they would return to destroy other tombs.
No one at UNESCO was immediately available to comment.
"We have learned with indignation of the desecration of tombs perpetrated by lawless individuals. The government condemns in the strongest terms this unspeakable act in the name of Islam, a religion of tolerance and respect for human dignity," Mali's government said in a statement read on national television.
Timbuktu has 333 tombs of holy saints among which 16 are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites including that of Sidi Mahamoud Ben Amar, a learned scholar considered the most sacred in Timbuktu, Haidara said.
The town has been a World Heritage Site since 1988 and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in April appealed to the rebels to spare its "outstanding earthen architectural wonders".
These include the Sankore, Sidi Yahia and Djingarei-ber mosques - the latter Timbuktu's oldest, built from mud bricks and wood in 1325 - the famous manuscript libraries and the 16 mausoleums of Timbuktu.