AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - An Islamist rebel suspected of attacking mosques and monuments in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu has been handed over to the International Criminal Court, the first ever detained for wrecking cultural heritage.
The court said early on Saturday that the man was handed over by Niger overnight and was now in its seaside detention center in The Hague, seat of the tribunal.
The court has been examining events in Mali since 2012, when Islamist Tuareg rebels seized large parts of the country's north and imposed strict Muslim religious law and began desecrating ancient shrines, mosques and monuments in Timbuktu. French and Malian troops pushed them back the following year.
The court said Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi, known as Abu Tourab, had headed Hesbah, or "Manners' Brigade", in 2012, which helped execute the decisions of the Islamic Court of Timbuktu.
He is accused of directing attacks against nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in the city, which by the 14th century had become a major trading hub and center of learning. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"A zealous member of an armed group ... "Ansar Dine", he played a predominant and active role in the functioning of the local structure put in place during the group's occupation of Timbuktu in 2012," said ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
"Intentional attacks against historic monuments and buildings dedicated to religion are serious crimes," she added. "Such attacks affect humanity as a whole ... We will continue to do our part to highlight the severity of such war crimes."
Set up in 2002, the court has faced a chorus of calls to get involved in some of the world's bloodiest conflicts, including those, such as the spreading conflagration in Iraq and Syria, over which it has no jurisdiction.
Many observers have suggested the court should look at the Islamic State's destruction of ancient archaeological sites in Palmyra, but neither country is a member, leaving it powerless to intervene without a mandate from the U.N. Security Council.
Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Tom Heneghan