United Nations condemns 'destruction' of ancient Iraq city of Hatra

BAGHDAD (AFP) - The United Nations cultural body on Saturday condemned what it said was the destruction of the ancient city of Hatra in Iraq by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

"The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing under way in Iraq," Unesco director-general Irina Bokova said.

"Official sources today reported the destruction of the World Heritage property of Hatra," the organisation said in a statement.

Hatra is a well-preserved Roman-period city with a rare architectural mix, located in a desert area about 100 kilometres southwest of the northern extremist hub of Mosul.

Its reported destruction comes two days after Iraq said ISIS bulldozed Nimrud, another ancient city in Nineveh province that was founded in the 13th century BC and was considered one of the jewels of the Assyrian era.

The destruction at Nimrud followed the extremist group's release of a video the week before showing militants armed with sledgehammers and jackhammers smashing priceless ancient artefacts at the Mosul museum.

Both attacks sparked widespread consternation and alarm, with some archaeologists and heritage experts comparing the museum assault with the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taleban.

ISIS spearheaded a sweeping militant offensive last June that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad, and Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition and Iran are battling to push the extremists back.

The extremists try to justify the destruction by saying the statues are idolatrous, but experts say they traffic antiquities to fund their self-proclaimed "caliphate" and destroy only those pieces that are too bulky to be smuggled.

The timing of the attacks also indicates that they are more for propaganda than religious purposes, as there were more than eight months in which the militants controlled the areas where the sites are located but did nothing.