April 2, 2012 at 1:57 PM ET
Cultural treasures in the ancient city of Timbuktu are under threat from the armed conflict that has gripped Mali following last month’s coup, the United Nations warned on Monday.
Irina Bokova, director-general of the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said in a blog posting that the recent takeover of the city by Tuareg rebels could damage the management and conservation of the three mosques and 16 mausoleums there, as well as well as the Tomb of Askia in another Mali city, Gao.
She called on all sides in the political unrest to “protect these heritage treasures, to which the international community and UNESCO attach great importance," adding that they are designated World Heritage Sites.
Control of the gold-rich west Africa nation was seized by a military junta on March 21, prompting separatist Tuareg rebels in the north of the country to take over towns and cities. They planted a flag in Timbuktu late on Sunday after a battle with the army, forcing the junta to pledge a return to civilian power.
Bokova’s posting said Timbuktu attractions “reflect the golden age of an intellectual and spiritual capital in the fifteenth century” and “played a vital role in spreading Islam in Africa, carrying the identity and dignity of a whole people."
A centuries-old crossroads on important trading routes, Timbuktu’s isolated position made it a global byword for remoteness and inaccessibility.
The modern-day city is much less important, and its cultural richness is overshadowed by poverty and the environmental threat posed by desertification.
“It is very remote and, in the current situation, not a place for tourists,” Alex Vines, an expert on Africa at British think tank Chatham House, told msnbc.com.
However, Mali is strategically significant for western countries, including the United States, he said.
“Prior to the coup, Mali was one of the few countries in the area with a democratic government and it has made some important progress in counter-terrorism so the US will want to see a political solution and an end to the violence,” he said.
Amadou Sanogo, an army captain who led the coup, is reported to have pledged to reinstate the constitution and all state institutions before transferring power back to civilians via elections.
That followed a threat by West African regional bloc ECOWAS to impose sanctions, including the potentially crippling closure of borders around the land-locked state.
More from msnbc.com and NBC News:
Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world