BAMAKO — Islamist rebels smashed the entrance of a 15th-century Timbuktu mosque, while their Al-Qaeda allies in northern Mali cut off the key city of Gao by planting landmines all around it.
In Timbuktu, rebels from the Al-Qaeda-allied Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) group continued their destruction of the city's cultural treasures, defying a chorus of international condemnation.
Some residents sobbed as the Islamists broke down the "sacred door" of one of Timbuktu's three ancient mosques, Sidi Yahya -- closed for centuries due to local beliefs that to open it would bring misfortune.
In Gao meanwhile, two sources said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies had planted mines around the city, with one Tuareg rebel spokesman accusing the militants of taking the city hostage.
Mossa Ag Attaher, spokesman for the Tuareg rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which until recently shared control of Gao with the Islamists, said the rebels had mined the area.
AQIM, he said, was "using the population as hostages, as a human shield to protect itself from an MNLA counter-attack."
The North African Al-Qaeda franchise and its offshoot Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) forced their former MNLA allies out of the city in deadly clashes last week.
"Many people are trying to escape, to take the bus to go to Bamako, but the Islamists are stopping them," said Attaher, the MNLA's Paris-based spokesman.
A west African source also confirmed that landmines had been planted around Gao "to prevent a possible attack by troops" from the west African regional bloc ECOWAS as well as a possible counter-offensive from Tuareg fighters.
In Timbuktu, militants from Ansar Dine who occupied Mali's vast north three months ago destroyed seven tombs of ancient Muslim saints they consider idolatrous over the weekend.
A spokesman said they were acting in the name of God and would "destroy every mausoleum in the city. All of them, without exception".
Exclusive video footage obtained by AFP shows turbaned men chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) while smashing a mausoleum with pick-axes in a cloud of dust, the mud-brick tomb showing gaping holes in the side with rubble piling up alongside it.
They continued their work Monday at the 15th century Sidi Yahya mosque.
A former tour guide in the once-popular tourist destination said: "They came with pickaxes, they cried 'Allah' and broke the door. It is very serious. Some of the people watching began crying."
A relative of a local imam (religious leader), said he had spoken to members of Ansar Dine and "they wanted to show that it is not the end of the world" when the door is opened.
According to the website of the UN cultural agency UNESCO, Sidi Yahya is one of Timbuktu's three great mosques and was built around 1400, dating back to the city's golden age as a desert crossroads and centre for learning.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned the destruction of "part of the rich Islamic heritage of Mali" by the group, describing them as "bigoted extremist elements,"
Russia also condemned the "barbarian" destruction.
"Such acts can only arouse indignation," said a foreign ministry statement.
And the United States added its voice to the chorus of outrage.
"The United States strongly condemns the destruction of the UNESCO world heritage sites in Timbuktu by Islamic militants," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"We call on all parties to protect Mali's heritage."
Mali's Foreign Minister Sadio Lamine Sow told AFP the government would not leave the north in the hands of the rebels.
"We will do everything to recover our territory," he said, speaking from Algiers at the end of a two-day visit to Algeria.
Timbuktu is considered to be one of the centres from which Islam spread through Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Ansar Dine began its campaign of destruction after UNESCO put Timbuktu on its list of endangered world heritage sites last week.
International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Sunday told AFP that those responsible could face prosecution as their actions constituted a war crime.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the destruction of tombs.
A March 22 coup in Mali eased the way for Tuareg separatist rebels to seize an area in the north larger than France that they consider their homeland.
However, the previously unknown Ansar Dine group seized the upper hand while fighting on their flanks. Openly allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they have since pushed the Tuareg rebels from all positions of power.
The international community fears the vast desert area will become a new haven for terrorist activity and the Islamists have threatened any country that joins a possible military intervention force in Mali.
West African leaders will hold a special summit this weekend to discuss the crisis in Mali, meeting in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou, mediators announced.
The leaders will meet on Saturday with senior Malian political figures and other key figures to discuss moving toward a national unity government, Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said.
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