BAGHDAD/ERBIL,Iraq (Reuters) - Islamic State militants have destroyed ancient remains of the 2,000-year-old city of Hatra in northern Iraq, officials said on Saturday, in their latest attack on Iraqi antiquities which the United Nations condemned as barbarism.
The antiquities and tourism ministry said it had received reports from the northern city of Mosul, which is under the control of the radical Islamist group, that the site at Hatra was demolished on Saturday.
A ministry official said it was difficult to confirm the reports and the ministry had not received any pictures showing the extent of the damage at Hatra, listed as a U.N. world heritage site.
But a resident told Reuters he heard a powerful explosion at Hatra early on Saturday and said that other people nearby had reported that Islamic State militants had destroyed some buildings there and were bulldozing other parts.
Hatra lies about 110 km (70 miles) south of Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control. A week ago the militants released a video showing them smashing statues and carvings in the city’s museum, home to priceless Assyrian and Hellenistic artefacts dating back 3,000 years.
On Thursday they attacked the remains of the Assyrian city of Nimrud, south of Mosul, with bulldozers. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned that attack, saying that targeting the world’s “common cultural heritage” constituted a war crime.
Hatra dates back 2,000 years to the Seleucid empire which controlled a large part of the ancient world conquered by Alexander the Great. It is famous for its striking pillared temple which blends Graeco-Roman and eastern architecture.
“The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing under way in Iraq,” said Irina Bokova, head of the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO.
“This is a direct attack against the history of Islamic Arab cities, and it confirms the role of destruction of heritage in the propaganda of extremists groups,” Bokova said in a joint statement with Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, Director General of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Saeed Mamuzini, spokesman for the Mosul branch of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said the militants had used explosives to blow up buildings at Hatra and were also bulldozing it.
The antiquities ministry said the lack of tough international response to earlier Islamic State attacks on Iraq’s historic sites had encouraged the group to continue its campaign.
“The delay in international support for Iraq has encouraged terrorists to commit another crime of stealing and demolishing the remains of the city of Hatra,” it said in a statement.
Archaeologists have compared the assault on Iraq’s cultural history to the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas in 2001. But the damage wreaked by Islamic State, not just on ancient monuments but also on rival Muslim places of worship, has been swift, relentless and more wide-ranging.
Last week’s video showed them toppling statues and carvings from plinths in the Mosul museum and smashing them with sledge hammers and drills. It also showed damage to a huge statue of a bull at the Nergal Gate into the city of Nineveh.
Islamic State, which rules a self-declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, promotes a fiercely purist interpretation of Sunni Islam which draws its inspiration from early Islamic history. It rejects religious shrines of any sort and condemns Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslims as heretics.
Last July it destroyed the tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul. It has also attacked Shi’ite places of worship and last year gave Mosul’s Christians an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious levy or face death by the sword. It has also targeted the Yazidi minority in the Sinjar mountains west of Mosul.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Pravin Char and Stephen Powell