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UN confirms destruction of sites in Palmyra, other ancient Syrian cities

20 January 2017 – The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has confirmed the destruction of Palmyra's famed tetrapylon and the facade of the ancient Syrian city's Roman theatre, following its evaluation of the destruction of cultural heritage sites in iconic Aleppo.

Condemning the destruction at Palmyra, the UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova said: "this destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity."

She noted that this "new blow against cultural heritage, just a few hours after UNESCO received reports about mass executions in the theatre, shows that cultural cleansing led by violent extremists is seeking to destroy both human lives and historical monuments in order to deprive the Syrian people of its past and its future."

"The tetrapylon was an architectural symbol of the spirit of the encounter and openness of Palmyra – and this is also one of the reasons why it has been destroyed. Its position and shape are unique in ancient architecture and testified to the specificity of Palmyrene identity, as a source of pride and dignity for all Syrians today," declared the Director-General.

Palmyra's theatre, dating from the 2nd century AD and was built in the centre of a semicircular colonnaded piazza located to the southwest of the main colonnaded street. UN analysis of satellite imagery shows damage at its formerly well-preserved proscenium wall, which was decorated with ten curved and nine rectangular niches placed alternately.

The preliminary assessment of the UNESCO-led emergency mission to the World Heritage Site in Aleppo, which was sent into the war-torn Syrian city from 16 to 19 January, cited extensive damage at the Great Umayyad Mosque, the Citadel, mosques, churches, suqs, khans, madrassas, hammams, museums and other significant historic buildings, with some 60 per cent of the Inscribed Property severely damaged and 30 per cent totally destroyed.

In a response to the already known destruction, and after taking note of the recent detailed devastating findings of the emergency mission, Ms. Bokova said "this situation calls for immediate action and the highest sense of responsibility and coordination."

UNESCO, the UN body responsible for identifying significant cultural landmarks, launched a three-year action plan in August 2013 to prevent further losses and to repair damage where and when possible. In the same year the Ancient City of Aleppo and the site of Palmyra were inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

"As I have urged on numerous occasions, I call on all parties to refrain from targeting cultural monuments and educational institutions, in accordance with international and humanitarian law," stressed Ms. Bokova, adding that "culture and education should never be taken hostage of conflict – we must unite to protect them."

In 2015, the UN Security Council banned all trade in looted antiquities from Syria. The resolution also condemned the destruction and smuggling of cultural heritage in Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da'esh) and the Al-Nusrah Front, "whether such destruction is incidental or deliberate, including targeted destruction of religious sites and objects."

Against that backdrop, the Council decided "that all Member States shall take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property and other items of […] historical, cultural, rare scientific and religious importance illegally removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and from Syria since 15 March 2011." Encouraging steps to ensure such items are returned to their homelands, the Council called on UNESCO, Interpol, and other international organizations to assist in such efforts.

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