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Further call to protect Palmyra

A top Muslim body has urged "all humanity" to prevent Islamic State (IS) fighters from destroying Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. A German archeologist says smugglers are trading artifacts via Munich and Vienna.

Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim seat of learning based in Cairo, on Sunday said the world must unite to protect Palmyra, which it described as "one of the most important archaeological cities in the Middle East."

IS seized the central Syrian city and

UNESCO world heritage site

on Thursday after leaving a trail of destruction in recent months in Mosul and Nimrud in Iraq, and in other areas of Syria.

Al-Azhar's plea followed statements of deep concern from the Arab League and UN cultural agency chief Irina Bokova about the fate of Palmyra, which she termed the "birthplace of human civilization."

Al-Azhar on Sunday said Daesh, an Arabic acronym for IS would defy Islamic sharia law if it also destroyed Palmyra and

its artifacts.

"Protecting archeological sites from destruction and plundering is the battle of all humanity," it said.

German archeologist Andreas Schmidt-Colinet, who led excavations in Palmyra between 1980 and 2011, said the illegal trade in artifacts from Middle East crisis regions had soared enormously in recent years.

Trading via Munich, Vienna?

The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung quoted him as saying that the German and Austrian cities, Munich and Vienna, had become hubs for such transactions.

"Naturally, I don't want to place anyone under suspicion. But when, for example, a limestone head from Palmyra is offered for trade, ostensibly from 'private ownership,' then I prick up my ears," Schmidt-Colinet said.

And, the situation was likely to escalate, he added.

"Much worse is that with all these developments - through destruction, plundering and illegal artifacts trade - cultural memory is being destroyed," he said.

On Friday, the director Berlin's Museum of the Ancient Near East, Markus Hilgert, told German Deutschlandfunk public radio that IS wanted to rewrite history by destroying identities and historic human achievements.

Palmyra blended various historic cultural influences and was a symbol for worldly openness, multicultural coexistence and multilingualism, Hilgert said.

ipj/rc (KNA, AFP)

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