Nations team up to protect ancient heritage from terrorism

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The damaged Roman amphitheatre in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra shows the destruction of ancient heritage by extremist groups

Ten countries formed a new group Monday aimed at protecting ancient heritage from extremism of the kind that saw the Islamic State group lay waste to Syria's historic Palmyra.

Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Italy, China, India, Bolivia, Mexico and Peru -- all home to some of the world's most cherished archaeological sites -- have signed up to the "forum" launched in Athens by ministers and ambassadors from the nations.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, whose government is spearheading the project along with China, said the group would run joint projects to promote "dialogue in the face of fanaticism, and culture in the face of terrorism".

"We're only just getting started," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.

Jihadists from the IS group seized the ancient ruins of Palmyra in May 2015, systematically destroying and looting the temples of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

The group also ravaged the Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq using bulldozers and explosives, and ransacked pre-Islamic treasures in Mosul's museum.

Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, and Mali's Timbuktu are other UNESCO sites to suffer destruction at the hands of Islamist extremists.

The new 10-country group is due to meet again in Bolivia next year, the Greek foreign ministry said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said the project stood in contrast to the idea "put forward by several intellectuals of a clash of civilisations".

"We support dialogue between civilisations against the intolerance of which Daesh is a symbol," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

In March, seven countries including France and Saudi Arabia joined forces with US philanthropist Tom Kaplan to pledge $75.5 million (70 million euros) to a UNESCO-backed fund aimed at protecting the world's cultural heritage against war and terrorism.

Their International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones, based in Geneva, aims to raise $100 million by 2019.