Destruction of ancient Timbuktu shrines a ‘war crime’: ICC prosecutor

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The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor on Sunday warned Islamist rebels to stop destroying ancient Islamic shrines in northern Mali’s Timbuktu, saying it amounted to a war crime.

“My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now. This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate,” Fatou Bensouda told AFP in an interview.

She said that Mali was signatory to the Rome Statute which established the ICC, which states in Article 8 that deliberate attacks against undefended civilian buildings which are not military objectives are a war crime.

“This includes attacks against historical monuments as well as destruction of buildings dedicated to religion,” said Bensouda.

Hardline Islamists who have occupied the whole of northern Mali, have in two days armed with Kalashnikovs and pick-axes smashed seven ancient tombs in Timbuktu, a fabled city which dates as far back as the fifth century as a trading center and intellectual capital.

They have also threatened to destroy the city’s three ancient mosques, one of which dates back to 1327.

The rampage came after UNESCO listed the city as an endangered site because of the continuing violence in northern Mali and in the wake of an attack on a 15th century tomb in May. The extremists consider shrines idolatrous.

“God is unique. All of this is haram (forbidden in Islam). We are all Muslims. UNESCO is what?” a spokesman for Ansar Dine, Sanda Ould Boumama, said on Saturday.

He said the group was acting in the name of God and would “destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception”.

“We’re going to destroy everything before we apply Shariah (Islamic law) in this city,” he said.

Bensouda said her office was still in the process of collecting information, and the next step would be to open a preliminary investigation to determine whether criminal investigations would be launched against those responsible.

“Those who are destroying religious buildings in Timbuktu should do so in full knowledge that they will be held accountable and justice will prevail,” she said.

Mali meanwhile appealed to the United Nations to take action after the extremists ravaged the shrines.

“Mali exhorts the U.N. to take concrete steps to stop these crimes against the cultural heritage of my people,” Culture and Tourism Minister Fadima Diallo said in Saint Petersburg in comments translated into English.

Speaking at UNESCO’s annual meeting in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, she called for the world to show solidarity and to condemn Saturday’s attacks, in an emotional speech which she concluded by saying: “God help Mali.”

After her speech, the UNESCO meeting observed a minute of silence to mourn the destruction of the sites

The attacks were reminiscent of the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan -- an ancient Buddhist shrine on the Silk Road and a world heritage site -- in 2001 after branding them un-Islamic.