The Hague (AFP) - A Malian jihadist pleaded guilty Monday to attacking the fabled city of Timbuktu and begged forgiveness as the world was shown sickening videos of him tearing down centuries-old Muslim shrines with a pick-axe.
At the opening of his unprecedented war crimes trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC), Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi also urged other Muslims not to follow such "evil" ways.
Mahdi, a former teacher and Islamic scholar, is the first person to plead guilty before the ICC and the first to face a lone charge for the war crime of directing an attack on a historic or religious monument.
"I plead guilty," Mahdi said, after being read the charge arising from the 2012 attack on the UNESCO world heritage site when a group of Islamist jihadists swept across Mali's remote north.
Armed with videos, graphics and 360 degree landscapes, ICC prosecutors minutely catalogued before the three judges the destruction in the west African city, dubbed "The Pearl of the Desert."
The first of three prosecution witness also described the detailed methods, including satellite imagery, used to investigate the destruction.
Aged about 40, Mahdi is also the first Islamist extremist to appear before the tribunal launched in The Hague in 2002 to try the world's worst crimes, and the first facing allegations stemming from the conflict in Mali.
He is accused of "intentionally directing attacks" against nine of Timbuktu's famous mausoleums as well as the Sidi Yahia mosque between June 30 and July 11, 2012.
- City of saints -
Founded between the fifth and the 12th centuries by Tuareg tribes, Timbuktu's very name evokes centuries of history and has also been called "the city of 333 saints" for the number of Muslim sages buried there.
Revered as a centre of Islamic learning during its golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries and a designated UNESCO world heritage site, Timbuktu was considered idolatrous by the jihadists.
Prosecutors on Monday showed shocking images of jihadists smashing down the tombs, pushing down earthen walls that had stood for hundreds of years and hacking at them with pick-axes while their assault rifles lay nearby.
In one video, Mahdi and others were seen ripping open the door of the Sidi Yahia mosque, which had been kept closed for hundreds of years.
ICC prosecutors allege Mahdi was a member of Ansar Dine, a mainly ethnic Tuareg movement that in 2012 took control of Timbuktu, some 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) northeast of Bamako, along with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Mahdi, who was then head of the "Hisbah" or the "Manners Brigade", said he regretted the damage he had caused and was "really sorry".
"I would like to seek the pardon of all the whole people of Timbuktu," he said.
Transferred to the ICC by Niger in 2015, Mahdi was seen as a ruthless jihadist enforcer, fiercely imposing the strictest interpretation of Sharia law.
But vowing that was all in the past, he sought to distance himself from the jihadists describing their acts as "evil."
Dressed in a Western suit with a blue-and-white striped tie instead of his earlier white collarless shirt, he said he hoped "the years I will spend in prison will be a source of purging the evil spirits that had overtaken me".
- Mankind's heritage -
Amid scenes of similar destruction in Iraq and Syria, the ICC prosecutors have said the case is about much more than just stones and walls.
Such "deliberate attacks on cultural property have become actual weapons of war," ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the court.
"The heritage of mankind was ransacked," she said, adding that the jihadists "wanted to destroy these monuments and simply wipe them off the map".
The judgement will follow later, but it was revealed that the defence and prosecution have struck a deal under which Mahdi would not appeal a jail term of between nine to 11 years.
The judges warned however the court is not bound by the deal, and he could face up to 30 years imprisonment.
Critics have also urged the court to investigate allegations of other crimes committed during the Mali conflict, including rape and other sexual violence.