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Fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine, controlling northern Mali, have destroyed two tombs at the ancient Djingareyber mud mosque in Timbuktu, an endangered World Heritage site, witnesses say. About a dozen men arrived in an armoured four-wheel drive truck, armed with pickaxes and hoes. They fired in the air to intimidate people and started smashing the tombs, according to Ibrahim Cisse, who witnessed the incident. "They blocked the two main roads leading to the mausoleums. When they saw people gathering for a ceremony nearby, they began firing shots in the air," another resident, Mahamad ould Ibrahim, said.
The new destruction comes after attacks last week on other historic and religious landmarks in Timbuktu that UNESCO called "wanton destruction". Ansar Dine has declared the ancient Muslim shrines "haram", or forbidden in Islam, The Djingareyber mosque is one of the most important in Timbuktu and was one of the fabled city's main attractions before the region became a no-go area for tourists. Ansar Dine has vowed to continue destroying all the shrines "without exception" amid an outpouring of grief and outrage both at home and abroad. On Tuesday a source in Ansar Dine told the AFP news agency that "from now on, as soon as foreigners speak of Timbuktu" they would attack anything referred to as a World Heritage site.
But one thing is clear: no matter how entrenched Mali's divisions are along colour lines, the Tuaregs have a bigger enemy to fight – Islamists. As one Tuareg woman, Fadimata Walet Hadane, put it: "If it's a choice between one Mali, and being part of an Islamic state under sharia law, we choose one Mali."
But the music and the construction has fallen silent now, replaced by the sharp blows of axes and the spitting of gunfire. And yet, across the spread of 1,000 years of history, this is nothing new in Timbuktu, which has been occupied and sacked by numerous armies, from the Tuaregs to the Songhai to the Arabs, from the Moors to the French.
The last serious occupation, one that did real physical damage to the city according to Keita, was when the Moors invaded and toppled the Songhai Empire in 1591. But no one and no force of nature, not even the Sahara -- whose sands creep up the foundations of the city's homes -- has been able to wipe Timbuktu off the map. Somehow the city has survived, losing bits of its heritage here and there, but keeping most of it intact. And Keita, who descends from people who fled Timbuktu during the Moorish invasion, said that invaders over the centuries added their own touch to the fabled city. "You can still find Moorish style windows in buildings throughout the town," he said. "Timbuktu has always had a genius for being able to absorb its invaders." But the methodical aggression of groups like Ansar Dine don't bring with them architecture or history of their own. And there's much more than earthen tombs and mosques at risk. "The spirit of Islam goes back to the tenth century in this region," explains Keita. "They are killing the soul of Islam."