A radical Islamist asked for forgiveness Monday after pleading guilty to wrecking centuries-old mausoleums in the Malian city of Timbuktu, in an unprecedented war crimes case.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi told judges on the opening day of his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague that he regretted his actions.

"I am really sorry. I am really remorseful and I regret all the damage my actions have caused," he said, urging Malians to consider him "a son that lost his way."

It is the first time a jihadist has appeared before the UN-backed tribunal. The case is also exceptional for being the first time someone has been prosecuted solely on charges of destroying cultural sites of global importance.

Al-Mahdi was a leader in the insurgent group Ansar Dine when, armed with shovels and pickaxes, the extremists laid waste to 14 of the city's 16 mausoleums inscribed on the World Heritage list.

The group said the ancient buildings were monuments to false idols and did not conform to their version of Islam.

ICC lead prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the court that al-Mahdi played a "central role" in the rampage by "identifying the sites and deciding the order in which the sites would be destroyed."

Al-Mahdi, who is around the age of 40, was arrested in Niger and transferred to the court last year.

His admission of guilt means the legal proceedings could wrap up within days and the sentencing phased opened - making it one of the fastest-ever trials at a court notorious for taking years to resolve cases.

Prosecutors have said they will seek a prison sentence of between nine and 11 years.

The Malian Association of Human Rights (AMDH) said it hoped the court would “condemn” al-Madhi with the longest possible sentence for his crimes.

“We hope that the fact that al-Madhi has taken responsibility will contribute to peace and reconciliation in Mali,” Abdourazak Arboncana Cissé, a resident of Timbuktu, told dpa.

The ICC trial against al-Mahdi concerns the full or partial destruction of nine mausoleums, where Sufi Muslim saints were entombed 500 to 600 years ago, and the Sidi Yahia mosque, which dates to the 15th century.

Ansar Dine was one of two rebel groups that overran Timbuktu in northern Mali and tried to impose sharia law on residents. The extremists were driven out in April 2013 by a French military intervention.

Markus Hilgert, a professor and chairman of the German Oriental Society, said the trial sends a signal about the importance of preserving humanity's heritage.

"There is a direct link between the destruction of cultural property and crimes against humanity," he told dpa.

Timbuktu was an important centre for trade, economy and religion in the 15th and 16th centuries, and played an important role in spreading Islam in Africa. Its position near the Niger River allowed it to flourish, serving for centuries as the primary link between the Mediterranean and West Africa.

UNESCO and EU-sponsored projects have rebuilt many of the damaged sites.

"The destruction during the jihadist occupation of north Mali in 2012 of several historic monuments in Timbuktu, including multiple mausoleums and mosques, constituted an attack on the cultural heritage of Mali and of humanity as a whole," an EU spokesperson said in a statement on Monday.

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