Islamic State militants publicly destroyed a number of ancient statues they confiscated from the historic Syrian city of Palmyra, also known as Tadmor, in north-western Syria.
Photos published by the jihadist group Thursday depicted the statues being unloaded at a public location where militants hammered the priceless Roman-era artifacts into pieces in front of a crowd of onlookers.
According to a report in the UK’s International Business Times, the text accompanying the photos details that the statues were discovered in the possession of an individual attempting to smuggle the artifacts out of the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site, which fell to Islamic State fighters in May.
As punishment, an IS court sentenced the man to an unspecified number of lashings, and ordered the artifacts destroyed.
“With thanks to Allah, IS groups spread throughout the province have managed to stop a man who had in his possession a group of smuggled statues from Tadmor in the Homs province,” the group was quoted as saying in the report.
Syrian antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim told the website that he was unsure if the effigies were originals or replicas.
Last month, IS destroyed two ancient Muslim mausoleums and blew up the tombs of Mohammed bin Ali, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, and Nizar Abu Bahaaeddine, an Islamic religious figure from Palmyra.
At the time, Abdulkarim confirmed that IS militants had destroyed at least 50 Muslim mausoleums that were between 100 and 200 years old in the regions under its control in north and east Syria.
Earlier in June, the watchdog group reported that IS militants had laid mines throughout the ancient city in what was described as a likely attempt to prevent regime forces from advancing on Palmyra.
Palmyra’s fall prompted fears the extremist group would seek to destroy the UNESCO World Heritage-listed ruins as it has done with heritage sites elsewhere in Syria and Iraq.
Until Thursday, the group was not known to have damaged the ruins or antiquities in the renowned historical site.
Syrian authorities say they moved hundreds of priceless artifacts to Damascus ahead of the IS takeover in May, but the fate of those ruins too large to move is now in the hands of the extremists. IS militants have already looted and vandalized a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul and have massively damaged the ancient cities of Hatra and Ninevah — both UNESCO world heritage sites.
On Wednesday, the head of the UNESCO cultural organization called for a campaign against the “culture cleansing” being carried out by the jihadists.
“Extremists don’t destroy heritage as collateral damage, they target it systematically to strike societies at their core,” Irina Bokova said in a speech at the Chatham House think tank in London.
“This strategy seeks to destroy identities by eliminating heritage and cultural markers,” she said.
Several archaeological sites have been attacked by IS jihadists in Iraq and Syria, and their recent takeover of Palmyra in Syria sparked worldwide concern.
In April, IS released a video in which militants can be seen using rifles and sledgehammers to destroy artifacts at the ancient fortress city of Hatra, famed for its unique blend of eastern and western architecture.
UNESCO on Wednesday named 2,000-year-old Hatra as one of its “Heritage in Danger” sites, joining the likes of the US Everglades and the Old City of Jerusalem.
The site was listed due to the “destruction inflicted… by armed groups,” UNESCO said in a statement.
Earlier the militants also damaged the site of Iraq’s ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, and destroyed dozens of pieces from the museum in Mosul.
“I think the growing awareness that hard power will not be enough to defeat violent extremism is gaining ground. We need also soft power,” Bokova said.
“Culture should be part of our response to violent extremism,” she said.
UNESCO is currently meeting in Bonn, Germany for its 39th committee session, and will consider at least 36 natural and cultural sites vying for World Heritage status.
It was at the meeting in Germany that Hatra received its special classification.
The organization has launched a campaign called “United Heritage” to defend historical sites under threat from jihadists, and to counter militant propaganda.