Friday 28 October 2016

Isil beheads archaeologist for refusing to reveal treasures

Louisa Loveluck in Beirut

Published 20/08/2015 | 02:30

Khaled al-Assaad
Khaled al-Assaad

MILITANTS from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) have killed a revered archaeologist in the Syrian city of Palmyra after he refused to give up the secrets of its ancient treasures.

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Syrian state antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said last night that Khaled al-Asaad (82), the long-time director of the Palmyra museum, was beheaded in a local square before his body was hung from the Greco-Roman ruins.

The archaeologist had been detained and interrogated for over a month by Isil, Mr Abdulkarim told Reuters.

The jihadists had wanted to extract information about the whereabouts of precious Palmyra antiquities which had been removed as the extremist group advanced on the city.

Isil seized control of Palmyra's ancient ruins and its strategically important modern town in May, prompting fears that it would seek to destroy the site, as it has done with similar sites elsewhere in Syria and Iraq. But it has left it largely untouched to date in an attempt to curry favour with the local residents.

Nevertheless, it has ruled with an iron fist. The sandy amphitheatre, one of the ancient city's most famous sites, has been turned into a stage for executions. Public squares have become forums from which the militants trumpet their latest diktats and a site for their brutal punishments.

Mr Asaad spent most of his life working to promote and protect Palmyra. On Tuesday, Mr Abdulkarim described him as "one of the most important pioneers in Syrian archaeology in the 20th century".

He had worked with US, French, German and Swiss archaeological missions on excavations and research in Palmyra's famed 2,000-year-old ruins, a Unesco World Heritage Site that includes Roman tombs and the Temple of Bel.

Since sweeping to power through large chunks of Syria and Iraq last year, Isil has damaged some of the region's most priceless archaeological treasures. Unesco said in July that one-fifth of Iraq's estimated 10,000 official sites had been heavily looted under Isil control.

Some sites in Syria had been ransacked so badly that they no longer had any value for historians and archaeologists, Unesco said, describing the damage as "cultural cleansing".

The regime of Bashar al-Assad has been complicit in the destruction. Palmyra has been looted by government forces and damaged in fighting and regime air strikes.

Isil has established a "ministry of antiquities" to maximise the profits from looting priceless artefacts across the territory that it controls.

The trade has raised tens of millions of dollars for Isil - a sum comparable to the profit the terrorists have made by the kidnap and ransom of Western hostages.

Since its lightning sweep through Iraq and Syria last year, Isil has sought to transform itself into an organisation that is capable of ruling its own state, setting up an elaborate hierarchy of leadership and ministries.

'Cultural cleansing'

Since it overran Palmyra in May, there have been fears that the extremists, who have destroyed numerous famed archaeological sites in Iraq, would demolish the 2,000-year-old Roman-era city at the edge of the town - a Unesco world heritage site and one of the Middle East's most spectacular archaeological sites.

Isil believes that ancient relics promote idolatry.

The destruction that it has wreaked adds to the wider, extensive damage that it has inflicted on ancient sites, including mosques and churches across Syria and Iraq.

According to the Syrian state news agency SANA, Mr al-Asaad was beheaded on Tuesday by Isil in a square outside the town's museum.

A Palmyra-based Syrian opposition activist who uses the name Khaled al-Homsi and who identified himself also as a nephew of al-Asaad, said that Islamic State militants detained the scholar around three weeks ago.

On Tuesday, they brought him in a van to a square packed with shoppers. A militant then read out five alleged IS charges against al-Asaad, including that he was the "director of idols," represented Syria "at infidel conferences" and visited Shiite powerhouse Iran - before he was beheaded. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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