TIMBUKTU, Mali, July 2 (UPI) -- A militant group in Mali with alleged ties to al-Qaida said it has destroyed most of the shrines at the internationally protected city of Timbuktu.
Rebels claimed autonomy for northern Mali shortly after a military coup in March. Rebels in the north are said to be seeking an Islamic state for their region.
Sanda Ould Bamana, a spokesman for al-Qaida affiliate Ansar Dine, confirmed to the BBC that rebel forces stormed the historic Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu.
He said the rebel group was 90 percent finished with its objective of destroying sites in the region that were in violation of Islamic law, or Shariah. Shariah, he said, forbids tombs that are built more than 6 inches tall.
Irina Bokovaa, director general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in a statement she was appalled by the attacks on the historic city.
"There is no justification for such wanton destruction and I call on all parties engaged in the conflict to stop these terrible and irreversible acts, to exercise their responsibility and protect this invaluable cultural heritage for future generations," she said in a statement.
UNESCO last week issued warnings about the security in Timbuktu. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, said he supported efforts by the Economic Community of West African States to find a resolution to the crisis.
ECOWAS had requested U.N. approval to send troops into Mali should diplomatic means fail.