BAMAKO — Members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have desecrated a Muslim saint's tomb in the fabled city of Timbuktu, an official said on Saturday.
"Members of AQIM, supported by (the armed Islamist group) Ansar Dine, have destroyed the tomb of Saint Sidi (Mahmoud Ben) Amar. They set fire to the tomb," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that they had pledged to destroy others too.
Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site and cradle of Islamic learning, has been under the control of AQIM and Ansar Dine since the groups took advantage of a March 22 coup to take control of northern Mali.
"They promised to destroy other tombs, Timbuktu is in shock. Now they want to take and control other tombs and manuscripts," the official said.
A local journalist confirmed the tomb was destroyed.
"This is very serious," he said.
Mali's transitional government expressed outrage over the desecration, calling it "an unspeakable act", in a statement read out on national television.
Beyond its historic mosques, the World Heritage site comprises 16 cemeteries and mausolea, according to the UNESCO website.
These tombs are "essential elements in a religious system as, according to popular belief; they constitute a rampart that shields the city from all misfortune", the UN cultural organisation said.
Sometimes called the city of 333 saints, Timbuktu is also home to nearly 100,000 ancient manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century, preserved in family homes and private libraries under the care of religious scholars.
At its height in the 1500s, the city, a Niger River port at the edge of the Sahara a thousand kilometres (600 miles) north of Bamako, was the key intersection for salt traders traveling from the north and gold traders from the south.
It was also a renowned centre of Islamic scholarship, with manuscripts written in Arabic and Fulani by scholars of the ancient Mali empire, covering a range of subjects including Islam, history, astronomy, music, botany, genealogy and anatomy.