BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Islamist rebels said Sunday they will continue to destroy historic sites in Mali’s northern city of Timbuktu before they implement strict Shariah law, as Mali’s government compared the destruction to “war crimes” and said they would seek international justice.

Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Abu Mohamed said Sunday that Islamists will continue the destruction they started Saturday. “We’re going to destroy everything before we apply Shariah in this city,” he said.

Resident Moussa Maiga said the Islamists have expressed disapproval of what they think is worship of the tombs of the Muslim saints. “They say that the population loves the saints like God,” he said.

But resident Bouya Ould Sidi Mohamed said the historic city has long had Muslim roots.

“Timbuktu was an Islamic city since the 12th century, and we know what the religion says about the saints’ tombs,” he said. “Contrary to what the Islamists or the Wahabis of Ansar Dine say, here in Timbuktu, the people don’t love the saints like God, but just seek the saints’ blessings because they are our spiritual guides.”

Mali’s government condemned the destruction, which they say is akin to “war crimes.”

“The council of ministers has just approved, in principle, the referral to the International Criminal Court and a working group is working to this end,” the government said in a statement.

The U.N. cultural agency on Saturday called for an immediate halt to the destruction of three sacred Muslim tombs. Irina Bokova, who heads the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, cited in a statement Saturday reports the centuries-old mausoleums of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi, Moctar and Alpha Moya had been destroyed.

On Thursday, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, placed the mausoleums of Muslim saints on its list of sites in danger at the request of Mali’s government.

Islamist fighters from the Ansar Dine group have declared that they now control the northern half of Mali after driving out an ethnic Tuareg separatist group. The rebel groups took advantage of a power vacuum created by a March coup in the capital to seize ground in the north.

The Islamists’ growing reach is more worrying news for the landlocked West African nation.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the attacks on the mausoleums “totally unjustified” and urged all sides to preserve Mali’s cultural heritage, according to a statement from his spokesperson.

” The secretary general reiterates his support for the ongoing efforts of ECOWAS, the African Union and countries in the region to help the government and people of Mali resolve the current crisis through dialogue,” the statement said.

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Edith M. Lederer contributed from the United Nations in New York.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.