May 8 (GIN) – Islamist fighters have destroyed the tomb of a local Muslim saint in Timbuktu, according to the BBC.

Gunmen attacked the shrine of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar and set it on fire, saying it was contrary to Islam, according to officials interviewed by the British news team.

Area residents said armed men from the Islamist group Ansar Dine threatened locals going to worship at the Sufi saint’s grave.

“What you are doing is haram! (forbidden). Seek help from God directly rather than the dead,” one of the gunmen said, according to a resident quoted by the Reuters news agency.

A local politician, El Hadj Baba Haidara, told Reuters: “They attacked the grave, broke doors, windows and wooden gates that protect it. They brought it outside and burnt it,” he said. “This tomb is sacred, it is too difficult to bear.”

Timbuktu is the site of three great medieval mosques and a World Heritage site designated by UNESCO.

It was captured by at least two separatist Tuareg rebel groups – one of which is Ansar Dine – in an anti-government uprising in the northern part of the country that began in January.

Yayi Boni, president of Benin said an African initiative by ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) supported by the African Union was working to restore constitutional order, but cautioned: “We do not want to build an African Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, Islamists of the insurgent National Movement of Liberation AZAWAD have launched an online media campaign. The bilingual website can be found at www.mnlamov.net