October 21, 2011 / 7:40 PM / 9 years ago

Libya's ancient heritage at risk of looting-UNESCO

* Post-conflict period most attractive to looters

* UNESCO chief: cultural heritage is key engine of reconstruction

PARIS, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Libya’s ancient treasures have so far largely survived civil war intact, but with the death of Muammar Gaddafi they could be at greater risk than ever from looters and unrest, the U.N. cultural agency said on Friday.

Speaking at a conference on safeguarding Libya’s heritage, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova warned delegates that death of Muammar Gaddafi could herald a risk to Libyan treasures just as thousands of archaeological pieces vanished after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

“We know perfectly well that in a period of great instability that sites are threatened the most by looting,” she said, adding that UNESCO had alerted art dealers and neighbouring countries to be on the look out for illegal trafficking.

Conquered by most of the civilizations that held sway over the Mediterranean, Libya has a rich legacy that includes five sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, such as the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and the ancient Phoenician trading post of Sabratha.

According to a fact-finding mission that went to Libya in September to assess the damage inflicted from the seven-month conflict, many of the country’s accessible treasures have survived unscathed thanks in part to UNESCO providing the NATO-led alliance with geographic coordinates of key cultural sites.

“Risks remain, because the situation is not yet stabilised. We saw in other cases — like in Iraq or Afghanistan — that it’s the post-conflict (period) that is the most dangerous. Because when there are a lot of weapons, a lot of armed forces and a lot of instability, that’s when the looting begins,” said Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture.

In Iraq, thousands of archeological pieces were stolen after American forces seized Baghdad in 2003 and only some of them were later recovered with the help of the international police agency Interpol.

So far, Libya has only seen one major theft — a collection of 8,000 coins and other precious artefacts — whose disappearance Bokova described as a “natural disaster”.

ENGINE OF RECONSTRUCTION

The coastal country has all the makings for a vibrant tourism business with warm weather, beaches, antiquities and proximity to Europe — all factors that helped its neighbours build thriving tourism industries.

But unlike Tunisia and Egypt’s antiquities, which millions of tourists visit each year, Libya’s treasures have been seen by few foreigners since Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution.

Tourism could help Libya diversify its economy away from dependency on oil and gas.

“To pick oneself up and reconcile, the Libyan people will now need to count on their strongest assets,” Bokova said. “World heritage sites, and more generally its cultural sites and wealth, are part of its engine of reconstruction.”

The new government needs to inform its people about their cultural heritage, said Hafed Walda, a Libyan who advises the country’s department of antiquities and was part of the recent mission.

“Libyans aren’t really aware of the importance of their heritage and it’s up to the new government to make them understand the splendour of their country from the Sahara to the Mediterranean ... the true Libyan identity,” he said. (Reporting By Anna Maria Jakubek; Editing by John Irish)

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