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Archeology

Italy appeals for UN force to protect heritage sites from Islamic State siege

Italy has called for the formation of a UN military force to protect the world's heritage sites. The plea comes as Islamic State militants continue to plunder and destroy priceless cultural treasures in Iraq and Syria.

The rampant plunder of cultural treasures at the hands of "Islamic State" (IS) in war-torn Iraq and Syria has shocked archaeologists around the world.

Many could only watch in horror as militants from the terror group destroyed and looted a number of ancient sites in northern Iraq, including the 13th-century Assyrian city of Nimrud, the ancient ruins at Hatra (pictured above) and Khorsabad. The group also released propaganda videos showing its fighters smashing priceless artifacts at the central museum in Mosul, which housed relics dating back to the 7th century B.C.

The assault on the region's heritage has prompted Italy to call for a UN military unit tasked specifically with defending heritage sites. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Italy's culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said protecting heritage could not be left to individual states and that "a sort of 'blue helmets of culture'" was needed, referring to the signature uniforms of the UN peacekeeping troops.

"There should be an international rapid response force to defend monuments and archaeological sites in conflict zones," Franceschini said.

Dario Franceschini

Italian Culture Minister Franceschini says world heritage sites need military protection

Last month, the UN Security Council moved to ban all trade in antiquities from Syria - a multimillion-dollar business for IS - and reaffirmed a ban on Iraqi artifact sales from roughly a decade ago.

Safeguarding heritage sites, however, has not been added to the role of UN peacekeepers.

According to Paul Collins, curator for the Ancient Near East at Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum, it's difficult to see the situation improving without a military response, "which of course would have at the top of its agenda saving lives, and then cultural heritage as part of that package."

Collins told DW that if safeguarding culture "could be written into the role of peacekeeper, then it can do nothing but good."

The curator acknowledged, however, that a greater issue remains: "We've got to reach a situation where peacekeeping is possible, of course. That's the real problem with dealing with northern Iraq."

Middle East 'Monuments Men'

A peacekeeping force on the ground is a great idea in principle, says Amr al-Azm, a Damascus-trained archaeologist who now teaches Middle Eastern history in the US state of Ohio. But he says it's unlikely such a proposal will be realized any time soon because of what he describes as a lack of international will.

"In reality, it's never going to happen if the international community has been unable to intervene to save the millions of lives that have been affected by the conflict and the hundreds of thousands that have died," he told DW.

In the absence of an international intervention, al-Azm has embraced a wholly different strategy. He's working with a group of underground activists in Syria, many of them his former students, who are risking their lives to secretly document and preserve their country's cultural treasures.

Listen to audio 10:38

Listen: Interviews with professors al-Azm and Eckhart Frahm

It's dangerous work involving traveling across the country - through areas held by the Assad regime, opposition forces, or Islamic State militants - to remove artifacts for safekeeping or attempt to secure museums with sandbags.

"The heroes of the story are those risking their lives just by being there," al-Azm says. "They face dangers ranging from being caught by ISIS or other looters while they document, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time if a barrel bomb falls on them."

Widespread looting

While it's the destruction of world heritage sites like Nimrud and Hatra that have caught the attention of the international media - and were condemned as "war crimes" by UNESCO - al-Azm says the attacks don't compare to the wide scale looting and selling of artifacts across the region.

The archaeologist is hopeful the UN's ban on the sale of antiquities from Iraq and Syria will help curb looting in the long term, but ultimately, he says, the loss of cultural heritage and invaluable archaeological sites will go on as long as the fighting is allowed to continue.

"Such will on the part of the international community does not exist at the moment, so the war will go on, the killing will go on, and the looting that is a byproduct of the breakdown in law and order and the destruction of the very social and moral fabric of society is ongoing and at a terrible cost."

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