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The head of Syria's antiquities agency is pleading for help to try to stop the destruction of his country's cultural heritage. He made his appeal this week in Italy, which has been trying to protect antiquities in conflict zones. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Maamoun Abdulkarim came to address the Italian Parliament Thursday on the plight of Syria's 10,000 archaeological sites. Ninety-nine percent of museum collections - some 300,000 pieces says Abdulkarim - have been salvaged. But civil war has caused massive damage. Speaking to reporters, he compared the ravaged city of Aleppo to Warsaw at the end of World War II.
MAAMOUN ABDULKARIM: After the clashes, it is looting. With all the Mafia coming from neighboring countries, it is another challenge for us how we can protect all the sites.
POGGIOLI: Between 200 and 300 sites, he says, are now under ISIS control. The Islamic State has destroyed large quantities of artworks as idolatrous. But it's also trafficking many pieces on the global black market to raise funds. Palmya, a UNESCO World Heritage site with some of the best preserved antique artifacts, was overrun in May.
ABDULKARIM: It is hostage - a hostage now - Palmyra. Each 10 days, we receive new bad news, new destruction.
POGGIOLI: ISIS razed two ancient temples and a Roman-era triumphal arch.
ABDULKARIM: And they beheaded Khaled Asaad, one of my best friends
POGGIOLI: Archaeologist Khaled Asaad was Palmyra's custodian for 40 years. Abdulkarim, switching to French, says he phoned him after Palmyra was overrun by ISIS and begged him to leave.
ABDULKARIM: (Speaking French).
POGGIOLI: "Unfortunately," he says, "al-Asaad refused. After reaching the age of 82," he told me, "I have nothing to fear. I won't leave Palmyra." The archaeologist was detained for weeks but refused to reveal the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. In August, he was killed. Al-Asaad's murder triggered worldwide condemnation. Now Syria's antiquities chief is seeking the world's practical help.
ABDULKARIM: The international community can push neighboring countries to close the borders, to control the market black.
POGGIOLI: Black market.
ABDULKARIM: Do not give the mafia the facility to come into Syria.
POGGIOLI: A country's cultural heritage belongs to everyone, he says, and it's the responsibility of all countries to safeguard it for posterity.
ABDULKARIM: Today, it is Syria, Iraq; tomorrow, we don't know where.
POGGIOLI: The destruction of Syrian antiquities prompted the Italian government to propose a U.N.-led mission of peacekeepers to protect world heritage sites, a contemporary version of the Monuments Men, who, in World War II, helped track down artworks stolen by the Nazis. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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