Islamic State fighters have reportedly taken over the ancient Roman city of Sabratha in western Libya, raising concerns that the jihadist group may destroy the remnants of another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Members of the radical Islamist group were said to take over the coastal city, home to about 100,000 people and the ruins of a second and third century CE Roman city, Libyan Arabic news sources reported Thursday.
Earlier this year, the radical Islamist group took over the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria, and has since wreaked destruction upon the prized archaeological site.
Sabratha was a Phoenician trading post, like its more famous neighbor Carthage. The UN recognized it as a World Heritage Site in 1982. It features some of the best preserved remains of ancient temples and churches, mosaics and baths, but most impressive is the Roman theater, with a wonderfully preserved three-story backdrop.
The English-language Libya Herald reported, however, that it wasn’t clear whether the troops that entered the archaeological site were Islamic State or Ansar al-Sharia. It says checkpoints and 30 vehicles with blacks appeared in the city after police arrested two men, one of whom was related to a member of the Islamic State.
There are an estimated 3,000 Islamic State fighters in Libya, according to ABC news.
IS considers pre-Islamic artifacts to be idolatrous and therefore worthy of destruction.
Since the jihadists seized Palmyra from regime forces in May, they have destroyed multiple sites and historic artifacts, including its celebrated temples of Bel and Baal Shamin as well as several funerary towers.
IS has used Palmyra’s grand amphitheater for a massacre in which child members of the group killed 25 Syrian soldiers, execution-style, in front of residents.
It also beheaded Palmyra’s 82-year-old former antiquities director in August.
Palmyra’s ruins are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and before the war around 150,000 tourists a year visited the town.
Experts say the militants have used the destruction to raise their profile to attract new recruits, and are also funding their “caliphate” by selling treasures on the black market.
Syria’s archaeology association, the APSA, says that more than 900 monuments and archaeological sites have been looted, damaged or destroyed during the four-year civil war.