UNITED NATIONS – Illegal excavations are taking place at important archaeological sites all over Syria that are "extremely dangerous" and "lethal" to the country's cultural heritage, the U.N. cultural agency said Wednesday.
Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO's assistant director-general for culture, told a news conference that illegal digging has happened from the ancient Sumerian city of Mari to the ancient cities of Ebla, Palmyra and Apamea.
"All of them have been subject to this phenomena, some of them to an extent that is unimaginable," he said. "Apamea — it's completely destroyed."
Bandarin said archaeological material and cultural heritage objects are being trafficked through illegal systems into other countries and markets.
The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organzation has been raising public awareness of illegal trafficking and started training police and customs forces in neighboring countries in the past month to spot looted items, Bandarin said.
Some objects have been retrieved in Beirut and other places, he said, but "we certainly have intercepted a very, very small amount of what has been pillaged."
Bandarin said UNESCO received 2.5 million euros on Tuesday from the European Union for a program to improve information about the situation of Syria's cultural heritage, to fight against illegal trafficking, and to raise awareness in the international community of the looting of artifacts.
UNESCO plans to set up an office in Beirut and launch the program in several months, he said.
Syria is one of the cradles of civilization, first Chrstianity and then Islam, Bandarin said.
He lamented the destruction of landmarks in the civil war including Aleppo's medieval marketplace and the 11th-century minaret of the Umayyad Mosque that was the ancient heart of Aleppo's walled Old City, as well as the looting of the Krak des Chevaliers, one of the world's best preserved Crusader castles.
The only piece of good news, Bandarin said, is that the government's director of antiquities has emptied 34 major museums of their contents which have been transferred "to safe havens."
He said heritage trafficking worldwide is valued at $7 billion a year and often uses the same mafias and channels as drug traffickers.