Islamist militant pleads guilty to ordering destruction of ancient shrines in Timbuktu

The trial of Ahmad al Faqi al Mahdi has gotten underway at the International Criminal Court

Islamist militant pleads guilty to ordering destruction of ancient shrines in Timbuktu

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, center, appears at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. Image: Patrick Post / AP/Press Association Images

A Malian jihadist has pleaded guilty to ordering the 2012 attacks on ancient shrines in Timbuktu.

Ahmad al Faqi al Mahdi, who is aged about 40, is the first person to face a charge of cultural destruction at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Appearing at the Hague on Monday, al Mahdi was told the details of the charge and then said to the judge: "Your honour, regrettably I have to say that what I heard so far is accurate and reflects the events."

He added that he was pleading guilty "with deep regret and deep pain".

He also asked the people of Mali for forgiveness.

"I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look at me as a son who has lost his way," he told the ICC.

Prosecutors say al Mahdi was part of Ansar Dine, a movement that took control of Timbuktu in 2012, along with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

As head of the Hisbah, or "Manners Brigade",  al Madhi was accused of directing the attacks on 14 of Timbuktu's 16 World Heritage List mausoleums because they were considered by the group to be symbols of idolatry.

He has pleaded guilty to intentionally ordering the attacks on nine shrines and the Sidi Yahia mosque between 30 June and 11 July 2012.

The attacks, done using pickaxes, chisels and trucks, were "tantamount to an assault on people's history" and "rob(bed) future generations of their landmarks and heritage", according to ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

Al Mahdi, who was handed to the ICC by Niger late last year, has previously told the court he is a graduate of the teachers' institute in Timbuktu and had been a civil servant in the education department from 2011.

His defence lawyer Mohamed Aouini told an earlier hearing that al Mahdi is "a Muslim who believes in justice", adding: "He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed".

Archaeologists hope the case will serve as a warning to others, particularly as similarly important artefacts and monuments are under threat from jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

The prosecution is now due to call three witnesses as it lays out its case for sentencing before the defence team also addresses the judge during the five days that had been set aside for al Mahdi's trial.