Timbuktu, the World Heritage city in war-troubled Mali, is undergoing a steady destruction of centuries-old shrines by salafist hardliners.
Militants from the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine group which backs strict sharia Islamic law equate the local Sufi Islamic beliefs with idol-worship.
Witnesses described the demolition of several tombs of saints. The group has threatened to destroy all of them.
Ansar Dine and allies have muscled in on a separatist uprising by local Tuareg rebels and now control two-thirds of Mali’s desert north territory.
The size of the area in western Africa now under their control is bigger than France, heightening fears Mali will become a haven for jihadists.
Ansar Dine is made up of various nationalities, including Malians, Algerians and Nigerians.
UNESCO called for an immediate halt to the attacks.
Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedun, a minister in the Transitional Council of Azawad, a territory unilaterally declared separated from Mali after a Tuareg rebellion, said the people wouldn’t accept turning the area into a Taliban-like Afghanistan.
But the strength of the fortifications around Sankore Masjid, an ancient centre of learning in Timbuktu, is uncertain.
Sufi shrines have been attacked by hard-line Salafists in Egypt and Libya in the past year.
The Timbuktu attacks began just after UNESCO placed the city on its list of heritage sites in danger, recalling the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of 6th-century statues of Buddha in central Afghanistan.