Libyans protect their heritage against jihadist onslaught

The TimesBel Trew, Leptis Magna

It is hard to imagine an encroaching battalion of Islamic State militants when sitting on top of the Leptis Magna ruins. The sound of waves and birdsong are the only things that break through the silence at the Unesco world heritage site, 80 miles east of Tripoli. As one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world and one of the most unspoilt sites on the Mediterranean it should be heaving with tourists and archaeologists.

The entire 2,500-year-old ruin, however, home to marble basilicas, sweeping forums and an ancient seafront theatre, is empty except for a single Libyan family and a handful of local volunteers in sandals and T-shirts guarding the site with battered rifles.

It is not difficult to see why the tourists are keeping their distance. Libya has descended into violent chaos since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi and Isis — which has established a stronghold on the coast — has attacked the two main checkpoints that lead to and from the site in the past few months.

“We are mostly guarded by local volunteers but if it’s particularly tense, like after a bombing, we call the militias in,” said Fathy, a wiry man in his fifties. “People feel uneasy.” Dressed in a full suit, he has loyally (and incongruously) manned the site’s empty post office for 20 years.

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