UN officers discover serious damage to cultural sites in northern Mali - UN cultural officials on Thursday said some 90 per cent of the 11th century archaeological site of Gao Saneye in northern Mali was pillaged by Islamic extremists during their seizure of the region in 2012.
They also said that traditional musical instruments and costumes were destroyed and a World Heritage site mosque needed urgent repairs.
A UN statement on Thursday said that the assessment visit on the damage to cultural heritage in the town of Gao, addressing both sites and the cultural practices of local people, followed a UN assessment last year of Timbuktu, another major heritage site in northern Mali.
During their visit to Gao, the officials found that the local community had carried out work to repair the Tomb of Askia World Heritage site to avoid further deterioration.
They said that the people also took the risk of defending the site during the occupation, preventing the extremists from damaging it in the way they damaged World Heritage sites in Timbuktu.
'But despite community efforts, the experts found that the mosque's prayer rooms require major conservation work before the next rainy season, to prevent further deterioration,' they said.
UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) country Director in Mali, Mr. Lazare Eloundou Assomo, said that the recent assessment found that the damage was more extensive than first estimated, including the destruction of parts of the 15th century Djingareyber Mosque, one of three madrassas comprising the University of Timbuktu.
He said: 'Concerning Gao's heritage, we must address the trauma experienced by the local population following violent attempts by the armed extremists to destroy their cultural identity and practices, including traditional music.'
He said urgent measures were required to safeguard the Tomb of Askia World Heritage site before the next rainy season in June.
The UNESCO official said that the dramatic 17-metre-high pyramidal structure, built in 1495 by Askia Mohamed, Emperor of Songhai, which flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries through its control of trans-Sahara trade in salt and gold, was a fine example of the monumental mud-building traditions of the West African Sahel.
'The complex, including the pyramidal tomb, two flat-roofed mosque buildings, the mosque cemetery and the open-air assembly ground, was built when Gao became the capital of the Songhai Empire and after Askia Mohamed had returned from Mecca and made Islam the official religion of the empire,' he added.
Radical Islamists seized Northern Mali after fighting broke out in January 2012 between government forces and Tuareg rebels.
French, Malian and other African forces pushed them out in 2013.
The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) took over from an African-led force in April with a mandate to carry out security-related tasks and protect civilians, UN staff and cultural artefacts.