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Fear for Libya’s Roman ruins

Standing at the peak of the towering coliseum, the centerpiece of this Mediterranean city’s majestic Roman ruins, guide Khalif Hwuita looked skyward as he heard the faint buzz of jets.

“They’re above our heads now,” he said, referring to the NATO aircraft deployed to weaken Moammar Gaddafi’s military capabilities.

Leptis Magna, Libya’s most important archaeological site, has not been engulfed in fighting as the country’s conflict enters its fifth month. But airstrikes have been carried out nearby, and Libyans on both sides of the battle worry that the U.N. World Heritage Site could sustain damage if rebels in the east push toward Tripoli.

Alarm about the archaeological site soared this week after NATO officials said they could not rule out bombing in the area if Gaddafi’s troops are found to be using it as a military staging ground.

“For us as Libyans, these ancient monuments are part of our proud history,” rebel spokesman Mohamed Ali said via Skype from Doha. “They are more precious to us than oil.”

Susan Kane, a professor of archaeology at Oberlin College in Ohio who has done extensive work in Libya, said Libyan contacts she deems credible have told her the government is storing munitions in cultural sites, such as museums and ruins. She said that fighting around Leptis Magna would be a tragedy.

“It’s one of the best preserved ruins sites in the world,” she said. “It’s staggering.”

Irina Bokova, head of the U.N. cultural organization, issued a statement Wednesday calling for all parties in the conflict to protect heritage sites.

“Several major sites bear witness to the great technical and artistic achievements of the ancestors of the people [of Libya], and constitute a precious legacy,” she said.

The ruins are on the edge of Khums, a small coastal city roughly at the midpoint between Tripoli and Misrata, the port city where Gaddafi forces and rebels have fought their fiercest battles.

Rebels say they are fighting in towns roughly 25 miles east of Khums — an assertion government officials dispute, saying that government forces are solidly in control of areas along the coast west of Misrata.

NATO pilots this week dropped leaflets — which included an image of an Apache helicopter — east of Khums near the town of Zlitan, urging government fighters to surrender.“When you see this aircraft, there will be nowhere to hide,” the leaflets said.

Libyan government officials took a group of Western journalists to Leptis Magna on Wednesday, saying they wanted to demonstrate that the area remains safe and under the control of Gaddafi’s forces. The trip was organized a day after a NATO official had said the alliance was aware of reports from rebels that Gaddafi troops were amassing in Khums and possibly stockpiling munitions at Leptis Magna.

“This would be a concern for us,” Wing commander Mike Bracken, a NATO spokesman, said Tuesday in Naples, where the mission is headquartered. “If we were to take on any targets, we would consider all risks.”

Guides at the site disputed that the area is being used to stockpile weapons, and reporters saw no weapons during a guided tour of the site Wednesday.

What is not in dispute is that the fighting along Libya’s Mediterranean coast has brought the country’s tourism industry to a standstill. Before the war, Hwuita said, thousands of tourists visited the ruins each day, and dozens of cruises docked in the port every week.

“Now all the area is collapsing because we depend on such work,” he said.

Correspondent Michael Birnbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.

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