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The destruction of ancient UN World Heritage sites in Timbuktu has brought a lot of attention to Mali. In a matter of weeks, this once apparently stable nation in the Sahara desert imploded, with a rebellion in the north and then a coup in the south, which in turn led to the rise there of radical Islamists linked to al-Qaida. From the capital, Bamako, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has the story.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Nomadic Tuareg separatists launched their bid for independence in northern Mali in January, helped by radical Islamist allies, including fighters from the regional al-Qaida franchise. They captured the three strategic towns in the north - Gao, Kidal and fabled Timbuktu. The crisis was compounded by a military coup in the south on March 22nd, by soldiers who accuse the ousted president of not fighting the rebellion.

While Mali's politicians and soldiers bickered in Bamako, the rebels rapidly consolidated their control over the vast desert north. Within weeks, the shaky alliance between the turbaned Tuareg fighters and the Islamists collapsed, and hard-line Wahabbi jihadists such as Ansar Dine took over - and they're vowing to impose strict Islamic law throughout Mali. On Sunday, the rebels said they'd publicly stoned to death a couple accused of adultery.

Circulating on YouTube are images of the Islamist fighters using pickaxes to destroy religious icons they consider idolatrous, including shrines of Sufi Muslim saints in Timbuktu, dubbed the City of 333 Saints.

FATOU BENSOUDA: Stop the destruction now.

QUIST-ARCTON: A warning from the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda.

BENSOUDA: Deliberate attacks against undefended civilian buildings, as well as buildings dedicated to religion, which are not military objectives, is a war crime.

QUIST-ARCTON: The city's mayor, Halle Ousmane Cisse, says the problems extend way beyond the destruction of the mausoleums.

HALLE OUSMANE CISSE: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Cisse says, under the control of the radicals, about half the population has fled the city, and that Timbuktu is short of everything - food, electricity, fuel and freedom - and they need help.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

QUIST-ARCTON: On the outskirts of Bamako, children are playing an energetic game of soccer on a makeshift dirt field. More than a dozen Christian families from Northern Mali have found sanctuary here. Tens of thousands of Muslims have also left the besieged northern towns. Twenty-year-old Monique Kone is putting the younger children through their paces.

MONIQUE KONE: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Only a few weeks ago, says Kone, she was cowering in fear in Timbuktu as gunfire flew back and forth when the rebels shot their way into town. She'd like to go back home to the north, but she's too frightened. Fresh back from a prolonged medical absence in France, Mali's caretaker president, Dioncounda Traore, addressed the nation Sunday, saying he's personally taking charge of the parlous situation in the north, which regional leaders and the U.S. fear has become a haven for what they're calling Islamist terrorism.

DIONCOUNDA TRAORE: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: Traore says it's time to drive out the invaders, as he puts it, though he's planning negotiations. Easier said than done, warns Malian political analyst Adam Thiam.

ADAM THIAM: It would be extremely difficult to tackle the northern issue militarily, because today Ansar Dine and al-Qaida are living among the population in the north. So it is tricky.

QUIST-ARCTON: Views reflected by many Malians as they pray for peace and order to be restored. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako.

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