February 16, 2016 / 4:32 PM / 4 years ago

Italy launches task force to protect heritage from war and disaster

ROME (Reuters) - Italy launched a United Nations-backed task force on Tuesday with a mission to protect monuments and cultural sites threatened by conflict and natural disaster around the world.

A woman takes a picture of herself in Rome's ancient Colosseum January 18, 2013. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/Files

Home to 51 sites deemed important to global heritage by U.N. cultural body UNESCO, Italy has volunteered a team of military police and civilian experts to share their experience with countries whose own artistic sites might be at risk.

Archaeological sites in Italy have been plundered so extensively that its police force has a corps dedicated to tracking down treasures that are often smuggled abroad.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said cultural sites, once under greatest threat from accidental damage during war, were now a source of publicity and funds for militants.

“Terrorists film the destruction for their mad propaganda, and then they turn off the cameras and try to sell everything they steal on the black market to finance their terrorism,” Franceschini said.

Architects, archaeologists, restorers, engineers and police will assess damaged sites, train local staff, help take objects to safe places and combat looting and illegal trafficking.

The 60 Italians will work in areas where the U.N. already has humanitarian operations underway, a U.N. spokesman said.

There was no indication they would go to war zones like those in Syria and Iraq, where UNESCO says Islamic State militants are destroying and looting sites like the 2,000 year-old city of Palmyra.

The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said the task force would help “stand up against” extremists.

“Heritage is not just the beauty of the ancient monuments,” Bokova told a news conference in the ancient Baths of Diocletian in Rome. “Heritage is about dialogue among different cultures and this is why extremists are afraid of history, they destroy it because they don’t want this to be true.”

Italy will bear the costs of deploying the task force and their eventual activities. There was no word on whether any immediate missions were planned.

Reporting by Isla Binnie and Antonella Cinelli; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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