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'Big challenge' is stopping illegal trafficking, destruction of historic Syrian sites: UNESCO

Stopping illegal trafficking and the destruction of historical sites in Syria is a "big challenge," the head of the United Nations agency tasked with protecting nations' heritage, told CNBC on Sunday.

Continued fighting in Syria, that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, according to the UN, has also led to the destruction of famous monuments in the Middle Eastern country.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the body tasked with identifying and helping to protect significant landmarks, said all six of Syria's World Heritage Sites that it had marked, had been damaged or destroyed.

UNESCO officials last month sent an emergency mission to Aleppo, one of the cities with the fiercest fighting, to see the extent of damage to the World Heritage Site of the Ancient City. The Great Umayyad Mosque and other historical monuments had been hit. About 60 percent of the old city had taken severe damage, while 30 percent was totally destroyed, UNESCO reported.

A general view shows Syrian pro-government forces walking in the ancient Umayyad mosque in the old city of Aleppo in the foreground and the city's citadel in the background on December 13, 2016, after they captured the area.
Youssef Karwashan | AFP | Getty Images
A general view shows Syrian pro-government forces walking in the ancient Umayyad mosque in the old city of Aleppo in the foreground and the city's citadel in the background on December 13, 2016, after they captured the area.

"We cannot divide heritage, it belongs to all of humanity and heritage belongs to all of the Syrian people, so it's a challenge, challenge indeed to on one side to protect it … but on the other side to stop illicit excavations and trafficking, important for the future," Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, told CNBC in a TV interview.

"If we want to have reconciliation in peace we need to have heritage protected."

Bokova said the security situation on the ground is unclear and that UN teams are trying hard to access places where there has been extensive damage, but many areas are still in the hands of extremist group ISIS. Looking forward, when peace talks do happen, Bokova urged all parties to include heritage into the discussions.

"Our first challenge is to make I would say a very objective independent assessment of what has happened there and second is to attract the attention of the security teams and circles to say that when they negotiate peace when they negotiate all the different frameworks for the future that protection of heritage and illicit trafficking should be taken very very seriously," Bokova told CNBC.