Reuters International

Old Roman ruins stand in the ancient archaeological site of Sabratha on Libya's Mediterranean coast, June 1, 2013. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny/File Photo

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By Aidan Lewis

TUNIS (Reuters) - Libya has not faced the same risk to its antiquities as Syria and Iraq, though there is evidence Islamic Sate is involved in the smuggling of antiquities, Libyan and international experts said on Wednesday.

The most famous classical sites have remained largely undamaged, though some illegally excavated artefacts are being smuggled out of the country and Islamist fighters have targeted mosques and Sufi shrines, the experts said on the sidelines of conference on how to protect Libya's cultural heritage.

Libya is rich in ancient sites, including some of North Africa's finest Roman and Greek ruins as well as prehistoric rock art in the desert region of Fezzan. But their preservation has been threatened by the political chaos and security vacuum that followed the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Islamic State took control of the coastal city of Sirte last year and established a presence in several other parts of the country, leading to fears that it would attack and damage key ancient sites as it has done in Syria and Iraq.

Though Islamic State may still try to attack classical sites as they "search for visibility", a bigger risk is from illegal excavations and looting, and illicit construction by locals, said Stefano De Caro, the director-general of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.

"The big difference from Syria is that here they are attacking the Islamic heritage sites more than the classical heritage," he said.

Ahmed Abdelkarim, head of Libya's department of antiquities, said extremist violence was the top risk one year ago, but that since Islamic State recently lost ground in and around the eastern cities of Benghazi and Derna, preventing illegal building around ancient sites was now the primary concern.

Looting is also a problem, he said, with international mafia-style groups smuggling artefacts through Libya, and security forces had found antiquities last week in the recaptured house of an Islamic State commander in Benghazi.

"They found prehistoric objects, maybe from Fezzan, and Roman and Byzantine objects. This was a collection from different parts of Libya, for trade."

Authorities had recovered artefacts on two other occasions in Benghazi and Derna, Abdelkarim said. "All these incidents together give us the impression that they are involved in the smuggling of antiquities," he said.

Ramadan Alshebani, a senior official from the department of antiquities in Tripoli, said Roman ruins at Leptis Magna and at Sabratha, where local brigades forced out Islamic State fighters after a U.S. air strike in February, had not been damaged. He said the director of the archaeological site of Medinat Sultan, about 30 km east of Sirte, had told him by telephone about two months ago that it was also intact.

But Alshebani said there was a "major problem" with attacks on mosques and Sufi shrines that the militants consider un-Islamic, with more than 20 such sites attacked in the capital alone.

(Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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