BAMAKO (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked Mali Islamists armed with guns and pick-axes continued to destroy ancient mausoleums in the famed city of Timbuktu on Sunday, the second day of attacks on the UNESCO heritage sites, witnesses said.
The salafist Ansar Dine group backs strict sharia, Islamic law, and considers the shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam to be idolatrous. Sufi shrines have also been attacked by hard-line Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year.
Residents say the group has threatened to destroy all of the 16 main mausoleum sites in Timbuktu despite the international outcry against the attacks. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has called for an immediate halt to the attacks.
"We are subject to religion and not to international opinion. Building on graves is contrary to Islam. We are destroying the mausoleums because it is ordained by our religion," Oumar Ould Hamaha, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, told Reuters by telephone from the northern city on Sunday.
Armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes, about 30 militants on Sunday destroyed three centuries-old mausoleums of saints, local journalist Yaya Tandina told Reuters.
"They had armed men guarding the door. Just like yesterday, the population did not react. They (population) said we need to let them (the Islamists) do what they want, hoping that someday we will rebuild the tombs," Tandina said.
Timbuktu resident Hamed Mohamed said the Islamists destroyed the tombs of Sidi Elmety, Mahamane Elmety and Cheick Sidi Amar, all in the west of the city.
Ansar Dine is made up of Islamist fighters of various nationalities including Malians, Algerians and Nigerians.
"What shocks me the most is the presence of foreigners among them who do it with mockery while shouting Allah Akbar," Mohamed said. "For me it is a declaration of war and a crime against our cultural heritage. It is time that the international community helped us."
Tandina and other witnesses said Ansar Dine had on Saturday destroyed the mausoleums of three local saints - Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi El Mokhtar and Alfa Moya - and at least seven tombs.
The attack came days after UNESCO placed Timbuktu on its list of heritage sites in danger and will recall the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Pravin Char)