The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) today voiced concern about the risks posed by the latest fighting in Mali to the World Heritage site of Timbuktu and called on the parties to safeguard the country's cultural heritage.
"Timbuktu's outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, must be safeguarded," UNESCO's Director-General, Irina Bokova, said in a news release.
Fighting between Government troops and Tuareg rebels that resumed in January in northern Mali has forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes. Mali is also dealing with a coup by rebel Malian soldiers who took control of the country some 10 days ago and announced the dissolution of the Government led by President Amadou Toumani Toure.
Ms. Bokova said that the Timbuktu site, located in the country's north, along with its 16 cemeteries and mausolea are "essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage."
Inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1988, the site bears witness to the golden age of Timbuktu in the 16th century and to a history that stretches even further back to the 5th century A.D., according to the agency.
Rebels have reportedly entered the site and shots have been heard there. Mali has three other world heritage sites beside Timbuktu: the Old Towns of Djenne, the Cliff of Bandiagara (Land of the Dogons) and the Tomb of Askia.
The Director-General recalled the internationally recognized obligation of countries to safeguard their heritage in times of war.
"I call both on the Malian authorities and on warring factions to respect the country's heritage and its commitment as a signatory of the 1972 World Heritage convention," she said.
According to the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict and its Protocols, armies must refrain from using or damaging cultural heritage properties in times of war.
"UNESCO stands ready to share its expertise and experience to help Mali ensure the safeguarding of Timbuktu," said Ms. Bokova.