A spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says Islamic State (IS) militants have committed a “war crime” by bulldozing the remains of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq.
“The deliberate destruction of our common cultural heritage constitutes a war crime and represents an attack on humanity as a whole,” the spokesman said in a March 6 statement.
Ban was set to meet the head of the UN cultural agency UNESCO, Irina Bokova, later on March 6 to discuss the demolition of Nimrud.
Ban “is deeply disturbed by these events and calls on political and religious leaders in the region to raise their voices in condemnation of these unacceptable attacks,” his spokesman said.
Iraq’s tourism and antiquities ministry says IS militants started to use bulldozers and heavy military vehicles to destroy the remains of Nimrud on March 5.
It said trucks that may have been used to haul away artefacts 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 era.
UNESCO’s director-general also said on March 6 that the destruction amounted to a "war crime."
In a statement, Bokova said UNESCO could “not stay silent” and called 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 what he called "another appalling attack on Iraq's heritage" by IS militants.
Last week, the IS group released a video showing militants armed with sledgehammers and jackhammers smashing priceless ancient Assyrian artefacts 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 listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
IS militants say the ancient statues and shrines represent idolatry and must 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 eventually was found in an Iraqi central bank building.
Many of Nimrud's priceless artefacts 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 7th 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 one kilometer from the modern-day village of Noomanea in Iraq’s Nineveh Province.
The area is still the 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.