ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey is investigating Russian claims that Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq have profited from smuggling stolen antiquities through its territory, but it believes the charges are politically motivated, a Turkish official said on Thursday.
Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that the radical Islamist militant group was netting $150 million to $200 million a year from the illicit trade.
"Even though the claims in the Russian media and recently brought to the U.N. by the Russian authorities have been made for political purposes and as propaganda, they are being seriously investigated," the Turkish foreign ministry official said.
"Turkey has taken all measures to prevent historical artifacts from Syria being removed and marketed," the official said, adding that it had sent findings on the matter to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, in the past.
Russian-Turkish relations have been strained since Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border last November. Moscow has repeatedly accused Turkey of supporting Islamic State by purchasing oil from the group, a charge Ankara rejects.
Churkin said the main center for the smuggling of cultural heritage items plundered by Islamic State was the Turkish city of Gaziantep. He also said in his letter that jewelry, coins and other looted items are brought to Izmir, Mersin and Antalya, where criminal groups produce fake documents on their origin.
"Turkey will make every effort it can to protect cultural assets, which are the common heritage of humanity, and ensure they are safely passed on to future generations," the Turkish official said.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Nick Tattersall)