(Reuters) - Heavily armed Islamist fighters in Mali destroyed the tomb of a local Sufi saint near Timbuktu on Saturday, witnesses said, the latest attack on traditional shrines in the rebel-occupied north.
The destruction of the tomb of Almirou Mahamane Assidiki in Goundam came just months after a number of other shrines in the UNESCO-listed city of Timbuktu, 90 km (55 miles) to the south, were reduced to rubble, underscoring the threat to the region's ancient heritage from the rebels' extremist ideology.
"Last night they arrived in several vehicles and told the elders that the tomb of Saint Almirou would be destroyed," Aliou Ahmadou Toure, a resident in Goundam, told Reuters.
Local people tried to protest but were powerless to protect the shrine from men wielding shovels and pick-axes, Toure said.
"Some armed men surrounded the cemetery while a second group, chanting "God is Great", destroyed the tomb inside."
A local politician who was also in the town on Saturday confirmed the incident.
It was not immediately clear which of the Islamist groups controlling Mali's north was involved in the incident but they have previously said they are protecting Islam from idol worship.
Sufi Islam, which reveres saints and sages with shrines, is popular across much of northern Mali.
The rebellion - launched first by Tuareg separatists in January but since hijacked by Islamists - has forced more than 400,000 people from their homes and split the nation in two, with the Bamako government controlling just southern zones and mix of Islamist groups in the north.
Historians say cultural losses are also great, with attacks on tombs and shrines pulverizing part of the history of Islam in Africa, which includes a centuries-old message of tolerance.