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Global bid to protect ancient Middle East's treasured ruins

Nimrud in Iraq was destroyed by Islamic State militants [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 December, 2016

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A global gathering of government delegates and heritage experts are set to establish a plan to protect the Middle East's ancient cultural legacy from extremists and conflict.
Museums around the world could soon shelter the fragile ruins of the Middle East as violent battles and rampaging militants threaten to erase evidence of the region's rich legacy.

At a conference in Abu Dhabi on Friday, a global alliance is set to be formed tasked with establishing a protocol protecting and in some cases repairing endangered cultural sites.

The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, in northern Iraq, was among one of the centuries-old sites where Islamic State militants wreaked destruction.

Horrifying footage showed IS wielding sledgehammers, bulldozers and explosives, reducing the millennia-old site to rubble.

It was only earlier this month, when Iraqi forces chased IS from Nimrud, that the scale of the destruction became apparent.

Read more: Major world cultural sites destroyed or damaged by recent conflicts

Friday's gathering will include French President Francois Hollande, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, UNESCO director Irina Bokova and representatives of some 40 nations.

It comes "in response to the growing threats to some of the world's most important cultural resources arising from sustained periods of armed conflicts, acts of terrorism and illicit trafficking of cultural property", organisers said.

The conference aims to create an international Geneva-based fund of $100 million, according to French authorities behind the initiative, with France and the United Arab Emirates as key contributors.

The money would cover the cost of transporting, safeguarding and restoring affected monuments - including using 3D reconstruction.

Another aim is to establish "refuge zones" around the globe for endangered works of art, a source close to organisers said.

"Just as there is a right for asylum (for refugees)... we should also have asylum rights for artefacts," Hollande said in an address at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in September.

On November 1, he announced a safekeeping facility due to open in northern France in 2019, which in addition to housing the Louvre Museum's stored collection, could also be a refuge for endangered artworks.

The facility will have "another role, sadly linked to the events, dramas and tragedies which may unfold in the world, wherever works of art are in danger because terrorists, because barbarians have decided to destroy them... (especially) in Syria and Iraq," Hollande said.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, expected to open in 2017, "could also become a refuge zone" for endangered artefacts, a French official said.

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