Timbuktu's "End of the World" Gate Breached
World cultural body UNESCO was set to create a special fund to protect Mali's heritage on Tuesday after al-Qaida-linked Islamists attacked historic and religious landmarks in the city of Timbuktu for a third day, breaking down the door to a 15th century mosque that -- according to legend -- had to remain shut until the end of the world.
A UNESCO committee also called for a mission to go to Mali to work with local and national leaders to stop what it called "wanton destruction."
"In legend, it is said that the main gate of Sidi Yahya mosque will not be opened until the last day (of the world)," Alpha Abdoulahi, the town imam, told Reuters by telephone.
Yet Islamists intent on erasing traces of what some regard as un-Islamic idolatry smashed down the door to the mosque early on Monday, saying they wanted to "destroy the mystery" of the ancient entrance, he said.
"They offered me 50,000 CFA ($100) for repairs but I refused to take the money, saying that what they did is irreparable," Abdoulahi added.
In a statement emailed to msnbc.com Tuesday, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee called for a series of measures to help save Mali's ancient sites and condemned the "repugnant" destruction of Timbuktu's mausoleums.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has appealed for a halt to the attacks.
"There are mausoleums, there are mosques, there are manuscripts which represent enormous value for humanity and it is totally unacceptable what is happening there," Bokova said on Monday.
The U.N. body seeks to protect places around the world it classifies as world heritage sites, arguing they are of special cultural significance and should be preserved for posterity.
Mali's government in the capital Bamako about 630 miles south has condemned the destruction, but is powerless to halt them after its army was routed by rebels in April. It is still struggling to bolster a return to civilian rule after a March 22 coup that emboldened the rebel uprising further north.
The attacks have been widely condemned inside Mali as well.
"The 333 saints would be turning in their graves," the country's Les Echos newspaper wrote on Monday, referring to 333 revered Sufi imams, sheiks and scholars buried in Timbuktu.
"Today there are old women, old people in Timbuktu who say that maybe it is the end of the world," entrepreneur and former Timbuktu resident Male Dioum told Reuters.
Islamists of the Ansar Dine group say the centuries-old shrines of the local Sufi version of Islam in Timbuktu are idolatrous. They have so far destroyed at least eight of 16 listed mausoleums in the city, together with a number of tombs.