UN: Timbuktu Threatened by Rebel Violence

April 3, 2012 Updated: April 4, 2012

The United Nations’ cultural agency said that clashes between Tuareg-led rebels and the Malian government could damage ancient treasures in Timbuktu.

UNESCO head Irina Bokova said fighting around Timbuktu, once an important trading city in North Africa, could damage “outstanding earthen architectural wonders,” including several ancient mosques.

The Timbuktu site along with the site’s 16 cemeteries and mausolea, “are essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage,” Bokova said on the U.N. News Center’s site, adding that these are designated World Heritage sites.

The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict requires armies to refrain from using or damaging cultural heritage properties.

Timbuktu was put on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988 and has history that predates Islam in the fifth century. It became a key crossroads city due to its position on the Niger River where it flows northward into the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. 

The city was taken over by rebels, but it is unclear if Islamists or Tuaregs are in control, the BBC reported. Tuareg-led rebels have taken over a number of towns in northern Mali and said they would be willing to hold talks with the government and regional groups.

The Malian government was overthrown on March 22 by a mid-level army captain, who said the administration was not doing enough to stave off the rebel insurrection. The insurrection has grown worse since, with rebels taking advantage of the instability caused by the coup.

U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said that since the fighting began in January, at least 200,000 have been displaced, with over half fleeing the country into neighboring Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger. 

“The situation has worsened since the Tuareg fighters captured several big towns in the north last week, preventing UNHCR and other aid agencies from reaching those in need of assistance,” said the refugee agency in a statement on Tuesday.