UNESCO warns over risk to Libya heritage sites

PARIS, Michael Mainville- Libya's ancient sites and cultural treasures have emerged largely unscathed from the country's conflict, UNESCO said Friday, but are at even more risk of damage and looting now that fighting has ended.
"The situation is relatively satisfying, in other words there were no major catastrophes... but risks remain," the UN cultural organisation's assistant director Francesco Bandarin said during a one-day Paris conference on Libya.
But he warned that based on past experience the country's historic sites and treasures could actually be at more risk since the conflict ended with Thursday's death of ex-strongman Moamer Kadhafi.

"We saw in other cases, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, that it is the post-conflict that is the most dangerous because there are a lot of weapons, a lot of armed groups, a lot of instability," he said.
"This is when looting begins, so Libya must be helped right away to organise itself, otherwise we risk having cases like we did in Afghanistan or Iraq."
At a crossroads of ancient Mediterranean cultures, Libya is home to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the ruins of Leptis Magna, a prominent city in the Roman empire, and of Cyrene, one of the principal cities of the ancient Greek world.
Bandarin said none of the major sites appeared to have been damaged during the conflict, thanks in part to UNESCO working with NATO forces to ensure air strikes did not target heritage areas.
"Even in the areas that were very, very close to military attacks there was no major damage, thanks as well to the knowledge NATO armed forces had of these sites," he said.
Hafed Walda, a Libyan archaeology professor at King's College in London who was part of a UNESCO mission to the country last month, said many sites were protected by local residents who prevented them from being damaged by fighters.
"The Libyan people, the stakeholders around the sites, they protected the sites efficiently," he said. "The local people were absolutely instrumental, very aware of their heritage."
As well as Leptis Magna, the team visited Sabratha, an ancient Phoenician trading post, and the National Museum in Tripoli, where staff were able to hide valuable objects behind a fake wall during clashes in the city.
They were unable to visit the old town of Ghadames, an ancient Berber oasis town, or the Tadrart Acacus sites, which feature cave paintings dating from 12,000 BC to 100 AD.
Walda said he was particularly concerned about the Tadrart Acacus sites, in an isolated area near the Algerian border.
"The prehistoric sites in the south of Libya, especially the rock paintings and the prehistoric settlements, need to be assessed because we have no idea" of their condition, he said.
The mission reported few cases of theft, with the exception of the so-called "Treasure of Benghazi", a hoard of gold and silver from the time of Alexander the Great that was removed from a Benghazi bank vault in May.
Bandarin said UNESCO was investigating the theft along with global police body Interpol. It is also preparing to send another mission to the country and planning to establish a permanent office.
Walda said it was vital for Libya's new regime to work with UNESCO and other heritage groups to manage sites that were not only under threat during the conflict, but also neglected by Kadhafi's regime.
"What UNESCO can do is help us to create institutions," he said. "A lot of the sites have no management plan.... Libya has no infrastructure when it comes to heritage."

Friday, October 21st 2011
Michael Mainville

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