RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The ancient desert town of Timbuktu is under assault. The city's three great mud-brick mosques and shrines are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. This spring, Islamist forces took over much of northern Mali, where Timbuktu is located. And in recent days, one Islamist group, allied with al-Qaida, has begun systematically destroying shrines inside the mosque, shrines that celebrate ancient Muslim saints. To learn more about this we reached Corinne Dufka. She's a senior researcher with Human Rights watch. And we reached her in Mali's capital Bamako.
Thank you for joining us.
CORINNE DUFKA: Thank you and good morning.
MONTAGNE: Good morning.
Tell us what the latest is from Timbuktu, regarding these tombs and shrines, and why are they're targets for militants?
DUFKA: Well, Timbuktu is an ancient trading hub in one of Africa's oldest and most precious cities, and it's also an important part of both Malian and Muslim culture for over 1,000 years. It's also terribly important, because in the 1990s researchers found private libraries with tens of thousands of medieval manuscripts written in Arabic and African languages which detailed the study of mathematics, and astronomy and medicine and so on.
But Timbuktu was best known for its presence of numerous ancient Sufi tombs and mosques. And Sufi is a mystical sect of Islam. And (unintelligible) who have a much harsher interpretation of Islam, they have begun to destroy these tombs because they believe that true Muslims should only worship Allah and they see this mystical sect of Sufiism as it being un-Islamic.
MONTAGNE: So because it's un-Islamic, what exactly are they doing?
DUFKA: They have systematically begun to attack these tombs. They destroyed mausoleums. They set upon them with hammers, with chisels. I've been speaking with people who recently fled Timbuktu, and they wept as they described the scene. These groups of Islamists armed with AK47s who pointed their guns at them and then set upon these tombs and broke them apart.
MONTAGNE: And this all started with a coup in the spring, of Mali's government, but Mali used to be quite a stable democracy. How entrenched, now, are these Islamists. I mean, are they going to destroy everything in Timbuktu plus other atrocities?
DUFKA: Well, militarily, this current problem started in January when (unintelligible) sectist rebels launched a bid for a separate state they called Azawad. They were then joined by several groups of Islamists. And on top of that, you have a political crisis. And that happened in March of this year when soldiers, upset at the government's handling of the war, then launched a coup-d'état and overthrew the then-government.
And you have a serious humanitarian crisis provoked by the flight of some 300,000 Malians from the north, as well as a looming famine. So all of these overlapping (unintelligible) conspiring really to undermine the livelihood and the rights of Malians.
MONTAGNE: And at this point, what does it look like for Mali in the near future?
DUFKA: There has been a plan set afoot by the West African Regional Body to send in some 3,000 soldiers to try to sort out the problem of the north. But unfortunately, they can't do that if they don't have a legitimate and credible partner in the Malian governments. So at this point, I think the policy is really to contain and try to stop foreign Islamists from coming into Mali. And, of course, all of the groups have engaged in some pretty appalling behavior, including looting and use of child soldiers, abduction and rape of women. And then also abuses such as public beatings and so on, associated with their application of their view of Islam.
MONTAGNE: Corinne Dufka is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. And she spoke to us from Mali's capital Bamako. Thanks very much.
DUFKA: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.