On a visit to Mali with French President Francois Hollande, the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Saturday underscored the need to help the authorities rebuild and safeguard the country's cultural heritage that has been damaged in the recent violence.
Northern Mali has been occupied by radical Islamists after fighting broke out in January 2012 between Government forces and Tuareg rebels.
The conflict uprooted thousands of people and prompted the Malian Government to request military assistance from France to stop the progression of extremist groups.
There have been several attacks on the country´s cultural heritage, including last month when Islamist extremists reportedly set fire to a library in the city of Timbuktu containing thousands of historical manuscripts and in December when at least three mausoleums were destroyed.
"At this moment, we must act quickly to safeguard and rebuild this country´s outstanding cultural heritage - this is essential for national unity and reconciliation," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.
"This heritage is a source of strength and confidence of the people of Mali as they consolidate the foundations of peace," she added.
Bokova is meeting with the Malian authorities in the capital, Bamako, as well as in Timbuktu to kick-start a UNESCO programme of assistance to rebuild the country´s cultural heritage and to safeguard its documentary heritage.
Earlier this week, the Paris-based UNESCO announced it will send a team of experts to Mali to assess the damage and determine the most urgent tasks as soon as security conditions allow it.
A special working group will also be established to draw up an action plan to guide reconstruction activities in the medium and long term.