BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State extremists trucked away statues as they damaged the irreplaceable remains of an ancient Assyrian capital, a local resident and a top UN official told The Associated Press Friday.
Nimrud, a nearly 3,000-year-old city in present-day Iraq, included monumental statues of winged bulls, bearded horsemen and other winged figures, all symbols of an ancient Mesopotamian empire in the cradle of Western civilization.
The discovery that extremists removed some statues before using heavy equipment to destroy much of the site Thursday was cold comfort as outrage spread over the extremists' latest effort to erase history.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon considers the destruction a war crime, his spokesman said in a statement.
Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said in his Friday sermon that the extremists are savaging Iraq, "not only in the present but also to its history and ancient civilizations."
"I'm shocked and speechless," said Zeid Abdullah, who lives in nearby Mosul and studied at the city's Fine Arts Institute until the extremists shut that down. "Only people with a criminal and barbaric mind can act this way and destroy an art masterpiece that is thousands of years old."
A farmer from a nearby village told the AP Friday that militants began carrying tablets and artifacts away from the site two days before the attack, which began Thursday afternoon. The militants told the villagers that the artifacts are idols forbidden by Islam and must be destroyed, the farmer said, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals.
But the group also is known to have sold off looted antiquities as a source of revenue.
Some statues were "put on big trucks, and we don't know where they are, possibly for illicit trafficking," UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said.
UN officials have seen images of destroyed Assyrian symbols including statues with the head of a man, the torso of a lion and wings of an eagle. These symbols were referred to in the Bible and other sacred texts, she said.
"All of this is an appalling and tragic act of human destruction," she said.
UN officials were studying satellite imagery of the destruction, since it remains too dangerous to approach the site, she said.
These violent Sunni extremists have been campaigning to purge ancient relics they say promote idolatry that violates their interpretation of Islamic law. A video they released last week shows them smashing artifacts in the Mosul museum and in January, the group burned hundreds of books from the Mosul library and Mosul University, including many rare manuscripts. Many fear Hatra, another nearby ancient site could be next.
Iraqi authorities were still trying to assess Friday exactly how badly the ancient site was damaged Thursday.
"The destruction of Nimrud is a big loss to Iraq's history," Qais Mohammed Rasheed, the deputy tourism and antiquities minister, told The Associated Press on Friday. "The loss is irreplaceable."
UNESCO previously warned that the group was selling ancient artifacts on the black market for profit. Rasheed said authorities have not ruled out the possibility that the militants could try to sell these, too.
Bokova already wrote the International Criminal Court about a possible war crimes prosecution, and plans to alert INTERPOL, major museums, auction houses and Middle East governments to recover any trafficked artifacts.
"Somebody is going to buy these," said Iraq's U.N. Ambassador, Mohamed Alhakim.
Nimrud, also known as Kalhu, was the 9th century B.C., capital of Assyria, an ancient kingdom that swept over much of present-day Iraq and the Levant. The site spans 3.3 square kilometers on the Tigris River, and boasted the remains of temples, palaces and a ziggurat pyramid as well as the huge statues.
Many artifacts from Nimrud were moved to museums in Mosul, Baghdad, London and Paris.
In the 1980s, archaeologists discovered a trove of hundreds of gold items from Nimrud's royal tombs — considered one of the 20th century's most significant archaeological finds. The "treasures of Nimrud" were kept in a basement safe of the Central Bank in Baghdad for years until they were "re-discovered" in 2003, and now most of it is in the Baghdad Museum.
Nimrud was already on the World Monument Fund's list of most endangered sites due to extreme decay and deterioration before it was captured in June as extremists took over nearby Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
Last year, the militants destroyed the mosque believed to be the burial place of the Prophet Younis, or Jonah, as well as the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis — both revered ancient shrines in Mosul. They also threatened to destroy Mosul's 850-year old Crooked Minaret, but residents surrounded the structure, preventing the militants from approaching.
In July, they removed the crosses from Mosul's 1,800-year old Mar Behnam monastery and then stormed it, forcing the monks and priest to flee or face death.
A U.S.-led coalition has been striking the Islamic State group since August and is preparing a large-scale operation to retake the city of Mosul. But U.S. and Iraqi officials have been cautious about setting a timeline for preparing Iraq's embattled military for the campaign.
Meanwhile the battle to recover Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit progressed Friday with Iraqi government forces taking back the town of Dawr, 10 miles (15 kilometers) south of the city. Raed al-Jabouri, the provincial governor, said security forces should reach Tikrit by Sunday.
The Tikrit campaign launched Monday has been stalled because extremists lined strategic roads into the city with explosives and land mines, military officials said.
Dawr is the hometown of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam's former deputy, who has been suspected of collaborating with the Islamic State militant group.
Anna reported from the United Nations. Sameer N. Yacoub and Ahmed Sami in Baghdad, Verena Dobnik in New York, Amanda Myers in Washington, Jamey Keaten in Paris and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.