Italy is teaming with the United Nations' cultural agency to try to keep ancient artworks, monuments, artifacts and archaeological sites in conflict areas out of the hands of extremists.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova signed an accord in Rome Tuesday creating an Italian task force dubbed the Peacekeepers of Culture, as well as establishing a center in Turin, northern Italy, to train cultural-heritage-protection experts.
Officials say no country has been chosen yet for the first mission. The task force draws on Italy's Carabinieri paramilitary police force, which has long been in the vanguard in fighting trafficking in looted artworks and artifacts.
Gentiloni noted that extremists such as the Islamic State group sell looted art and artifacts to finance terrorism, and they destroy monuments as well for "cultural cleansing."
The cultural protection strategy "could be in the future one of the essential components in the fight against terrorism," Gentiloni said.
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Islamic State group is believed to derive some of its funds by selling looted artifacts, statues and other ancient objects in a flourishing black-market antiquities market.
'We are witnessing a tragedy of destruction of heritage, systematic and deliberate attacks on culture.' - Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general
Beyond the financing benefits for the extremists, plundering or destroying monuments and archaeological sites has a "more insidious motive," canceling "diversity and pluralism" in culture, Italy's foreign minister said.
Last year, activists reported that the Islamic State group killed three captives in Palmyra, Syria, by tying them to ancient Roman columns, then blowing them up. IS destroyed other monuments in Palmyra, a desert oasis standing at the crossroads of ancient civilizations, including a magnificent temple and an Arch of Triumph.
"We are witnessing a tragedy of destruction of heritage, systematic and deliberate attacks on culture," Bokova said at the signing ceremony inside the towering Baths of Diocletian, built around 300.
The accord envisions intervention upon a request relayed to UNESCO by another country. Besides Carabinieri art theft squad police, task force members include art historians and Italian-trained restoration efforts.