By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO has urged Libyan authorities to protect Sufi mosques and shrines under repeated attack by hardline Islamists who consider the traditional mystical school of Islam heretical.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said late on Tuesday the attacks, which have wrecked mosques in at least three cities and desecrated many graves of revered Sufi scholars, "must be halted if Libyan society is to complete its transition to democracy".
Libya's interior minister said on Tuesday he would not risk a clash with the armed men carrying out the sectarian assaults, in an unusually candid admission of the scale of the security challenge facing the country.
The League of Libyan Ulema, a group of more than 200 Muslim scholars, on Tuesday evening blamed the attacks on a son of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Saadi, and his Libyan Salafi allies it said were inspired by radical Saudi preachers.
"This group has repeatedly attempted to undermine the stability of our country," it said. Niger, where Saadi Gaddafi took refuge after his father was overthrown, has refused to extradite him despite requests from Tripoli.
Sufi theologian Aref Ali Nayed said Libya had not seen such attacks for centuries. "Even Mussolini's fascists did not treat our spiritual heritage with such contempt," he said, referring to Italy's occupation of Libya from 1911 until World War Two.
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After destroying shrines in Zlitan, Tripoli and Misrata at the weekend, crews of armed men desecrated graves at a mosque and madrasa in the capital's old city on Monday and Tuesday.
Militant Salafis, kept in check under the dictators overthrown in the Arab Spring, have campaigned over the past year to stamp out what they see as idolatry in traditional Sufi mosques and shrines in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
The destruction in Libya mirrors the 2001 dynamiting of two giant Buddha statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the sacking of Sufi tombs in Timbuktu in July after the hardline Ansar Dine group seized power in northern Mali.
UNESCO's Bokova said the Paris-based organization "stands ready to provide assistance to protect and rehabilitate" the Libyan sites destroyed or now under threat.
"Destroying places of religious and cultural significance cannot be tolerated," she said in a statement.
Many of the Ottoman-era Sufi shrines and lodges in Libya have a room or yard with graves of revered saints, scholars or benefactors. Attackers usually dig up these graves and dump the bodies elsewhere, infuriating the shocked Sufis.
The League of Libyan Ulema (Muslim scholars) urged Tripoli "to pressure the government of Saudi Arabia to restrain its clerics who meddle in our affairs" by training young Libyans in Salafism and spreading the ideology through books and tapes.
It also urged Libyans to protect Sufi sites by force.
Nayed, who lectures at the old Uthman Pasha madrasa that was desecrated on Tuesday evening, said the attackers were "Wahhabi hooligans (and) all sorts of pseudo-Salafi elements" while government security officials were "complacent and impotent".
"Libya has to make a clear choice - either a Taliban/Shabaab-style religious fanaticism or a true Muslim moral and spiritual civility," he told Reuters.
(Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Andrew Heavens)