"Everyone, from the political and governmental authorities to ordinary citizens, condemn the destruction of the mausoleums in Timbuktu," said Fr Edmond Dembele, the Secretary of the Catholic bishops' conference of Mali. Islamist groups in the north African country are destroying mausoleums and tombs of Muslim saints, which are important elements of the country's cultural heritage.  "There are not buildings that are worshiped, as the Islamists say, but they are historical monuments, which recall some of the history of this region. Their destruction is considered a crime by all. Furthermore, these monuments have a key role in promoting tourism in Mali. Therefore the historical and artistic damage is added to the economical one," said Fr Dembele.

The destruction is attributed to the Ansar Al Dine organization, a terrorist group that is affiliated with Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), which controls much of northern Mali, after driving out the independent National Movement for the Independence of Azawad (MNLA).

(Mosque at Timbuktu)

Malians are seeking help to protect their cultural inheritance and fight against the Islamists.  "This appeal comes a bit late because the Islamists have occupied the territory and it will not be easy to recover," said Fr. Dembele. In an interview with the FIDES news service, he said "It is true that the MNLA has the advantage of knowing the land but AQMI and other groups are well positioned."

Concerning the flagging efforts of the MNLA in the face of AQMI and Ansar Al Dine, Fr Dembele, said  "I Can make two assumptions. Either the force of the MNLA (initially it was said that its forces came from Libya and were well armed and aggressive) was overestimated, or the forces of AQMI and Ansar Al Dine were underestimated."

"The Islamists," continued Fr Dembele, " were helped by elements coming from other countries in the region, which allowed them to overtake the MNLA. The latter is losing support among the population in the north because on one side it considers them responsible, by driving the national army out, of having created the conditions for the arrival of the Islamists. On the other hand, many northerners do not want to hear talk of independence for the region of Azawad (the north of Mali). At present among the population there are those who prefer to support the Islamists against the MNLA because they do not want the independence of the north. But these people do not see what danger the Islamists represent, who want to extend the Sharia law throughout Mali. "

 "The MNLA which supports the independence of northern Mali is losing ground," concludes Fr Dembele, "so in theory the country can regain its territorial unity, but the danger of Islamists is still underestimated. The destruction of the mausoleums of Timbuktu is a warning sign in addition to the restrictions of freedom of the people in areas controlled by the Islamists: One cannot watch television, listen to music or smoke. " 



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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