BAGHDAD (REUTERS) - Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants have destroyed ancient remains of the 2,000-year-old city of Hatra in northern Iraq, the tourism and antiquities ministry said on Saturday.
An official told Reuters that the ministry had received reports from its employees in the northern city of Mosul, which is under the control of the radical Islamist group, that the site at Hatra had been demolished on Saturday.
The official said it was difficult to confirm the reports and the ministry had not received any pictures showing the extent of the damage at Hatra, which was named a world heritage site in 1987.
But a resident in the area told Reuters he heard a powerful explosion early on Saturday and said that other people nearby had reported that ISIS militants had destroyed some of the larger buildings in Hatra and were bulldozing other parts.
Hatra lies about 110 km south of Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control. A week ago the militants released a video showing them smashing statues and carvings in the city's museum, home to priceless Assyrian and Hellenistic artefacts dating back 3,000 years.
On Thursday they attacked the remains of the Assyrian city of Nimrud, south of Mosul, with bulldozers.
The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO condemned the actions as "cultural cleansing" and said they amounted to war crimes.
Hatra dates back 2,000 years to the Seleucid empire which controlled a large part of the ancient world conquered by Alexander the Great. It is famous for its striking pillared temple at the centre of a sprawling archaeological site.
Saeed Mamuzini, spokesman for the Mosul branch of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said the militants had used explosives to blow up buildings at Hatra and were also bulldozing it.
The antiquities ministry said the lack of tough international response to earlier ISIS attacks on Iraq's historic sites had encouraged the group to continue its campaign. "The delay in international support for Iraq has encouraged terrorists to commit another crime of stealing and demolishing the remains of the city of Hatra," it said in a statement.
Archaeologists have compared the assault on Iraq's cultural history to the Taliban's destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas in 2001. But the damage wreaked by ISIS, not just on ancient monuments but also on rival Muslim places of worship, has been swift, relentless and more wide-ranging.
Last week's video showed them toppling statues and carvings from plinths in the Mosul museum and smashing them with sledge hammers and drills. It also showed damage to a huge statue of a bull at the Nergal Gate into the city of Nineveh.
ISIS, which rules a self-declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, promotes a fiercely purist interpretation of Sunni Islam which draws its inspiration from early Islamic history. It rejects religious shrines of any sort and condemns Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims as heretics.
Last July it destroyed the tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul. It has also attacked Shi'ite places of worship and last year gave Mosul's Christians an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious levy or face death by the sword. It has also targeted the Yazidi minority in the Sinjar mountains west of Mosul.