France pledges $30 million for wartime heritage protection
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — France committed $30 million toward protecting cultural heritage sites during wartime on Saturday, a first step in the creation of an international fund aimed at preventing destruction like that carried out by Islamic State militants.
French President Francois Hollande announced the contribution during a conference jointly organized by France and the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi. Backers of the Safeguarding Endangered Cultural Heritage conference hope to attract an initial $100 million for the fund.
In coordination with UNESCO, it aims to prevent or stop destruction of historical sites, fight trafficking of stolen artifacts and pay for the restoration of sites damaged by war.
They also seek to create a network of sites around the world where artifacts endangered by fighting or terrorism could be temporarily stored for safekeeping.
"What we have to do today, and what we have managed to do, is to ensure the future of what is precious to humanity," Hollande told dignitaries gathered at an ornate beachside hotel in the Emirati capital. "It is already late."
Islamic State militants have deliberately stolen or destroyed cultural artefacts in areas they've seized, including the destruction of the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra, and the looting of the Mosul museum.
Just last month, Iraqi forces retook the 13th century B.C. Assyrian capital of Nimrud, south of Mosul, from the militant group. They found intricate reliefs smashed into pieces.
The conference was the centerpiece of Hollande's two-day visit to the Emirates. He arrived Friday, a day after surprising France by announcing he would not seek a second term as the Socialist candidate in next year's presidential election.
France has built increasingly strong ties to the seven-state Emirates federation over the years. Cultural outreach is a key pillar of that effort, including the establishment of a satellite campus of the renowned Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi a decade ago.
Workers are still putting the finishing touches on a much-hyped branch of the Louvre art museum, which will be the centerpiece of an ambitious cultural district on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island.
The project has faced repeated delays that have pushed its opening back by years, and it has attracted criticism from human rights campaigners over the treatment of migrant workers involved in its construction. It is now expected to open sometime next year.
Hollande paid a visit to the Louvre site Saturday morning before meeting with French expatriates based in the Emirates. He briefly addressed his decision to not seek re-election at the latter stop, saying he would continue to drive France forward "within the framework of its ideals and values" until he steps down in May.
Hollande was also meeting with French troops during his trip.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy opened France's first military base in the Persian Gulf in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, in 2009. The outpost includes facilities for air, naval and ground forces.
France has long seen the Emirates as a key potential customer for its Rafale fighter jet, though negotiations have dragged on for years without a deal being reached. The plane is built by French defense contractor Dassault Aviation.
No deal was announced Saturday.
Qatar, which like the Emirates is part of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, agreed to buy 24 Rafales at a cost of $7 billion last year. And in September, India signed a nearly $9 billion deal to buy 36 of the delta-winged fighters jets, far fewer than the more than 100 earlier envisioned.
A squadron of French Rafales is based at the Al-Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi. They have been taking part in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.