Iraq’s government says Islamic State (IS) militants have begun bulldozing the remains of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq in their latest attack on the country’s historical heritage.
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced the development, saying the militants began the destruction after noon prayers on March 5.
It said trucks that may have been used to haul away artifacts also had been spotted at the site, about 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul.
Ministry officials said they did not yet know the extent of the destruction of the historical city, which was founded about 3,300 years ago on the Tigris River with the ancient name Kalhu and had been one of the jewels of the Assyrian Empire.
The director-general of the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, said the reported destruction in Nimrud, which is the city’s later Arab name, amounted to a "war crime."
"We cannot stay silent," Irina Bokova said in a statement. "The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime, and I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up against this new barbarity."
The director of UNESCO's office for Iraq, Axel Plathe, denounced "another appalling attack on Iraq's heritage."
Last week, the IS group released a video showing militants armed with sledgehammers and jackhammers smashing priceless ancient Assyrian artifacts at the Mosul museum.
Archaeologists and heritage experts compared the destruction with the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
It followed reports that IS militants ransacked the Mosul central library, which housed thousands of ancient manuscripts.
Iraqi officials say they fear IS militants will continue to destroy other ancient heritage sites in parts of northern Iraq that they seized last summer -- including the beautifully preserved city of Hatra, which is more than 2,000 years old and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
IS militants says ancient statues and shrines are idols that have to be destroyed.
Nimrud was the site of what was considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, when a team in 1988 unearthed a collection of ancient jewels there.
The jewels were briefly displayed at the Iraqi national museum before they disappeared from public view, but they survived the looting of museums that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The precious-stone collection was eventually found in an Iraqi central-bank building.
Many of Nimrud's priceless artifacts were moved to museums in Mosul, Baghdad, Paris, London, and elsewhere.
But giant carved-stone reliefs and lamassu statues -- winged bulls with human heads -- had remained on the site of the city's ruins.
After Nimrud had existed for about 400 years, the city became the second capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire in 879 B.C.
It remained as the Assyrian capital for about 170 years, until the capital was moved -- first to Dur Sharrukin and then to ancient Nineveh.
It continued to by a major Assyrian city and a royal residence until it was destroyed during the fall of the Assyrian Empire in the seventh century B.C. at the hands of and alliance of former subject people -- among them, the ancient Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Scythians, and Cimmerians.
The ruins of Nimrud had covered an area of about 360 hectares and were located about 1 kilometer from the modern-day village of Noomanea in Iraq’s Nineveh Province.
The area is still a major center of Iraq’s indigenous Assyrian population, which is now mostly Eastern Aramaic-speaking Christians.
Since last summer, the Assyrian Christian residents of the area have been threatened with execution by IS militants unless they convert to Islam.
The development in Nimrud comes as Iraqi security forces and allied fighters are battling to regain ground from the IS militants in northern Iraq.
They are engaged in a major military operation to retake the city of Tikrit, about 100 kilometers north of Baghdad.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP