The United Nations cultural preservation agency says illegal excavations taking place at important archaeological sites all over Syria are “extremely dangerous” and “lethal” to the country’s cultural heritage.

Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, said on Wednesday the illegal digging is happening from the ancient Sumerian city of Mari to the ancient cities of Ebla, Palmyra and Apamea.

“All of them have been subject to this phenomena, some of them to an extent that is unimaginable,” he said. “Apamea [sic] it’s completely destroyed.”

Mr. Bandarin said archaeological material and cultural heritage objects are being trafficked through illegal systems into other countries and markets.

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organzation has been raising public awareness of illegal trafficking and started training police and customs forces in neighboring countries in the past month to spot looted items, Mr. Bandarin said.

Some objects have been retrieved in Beirut and other places, he said, but "we certainly have intercepted a very, very small amount of what has been pillaged".

Mr. Bandarin said UNESCO received 2.5 million euros on Tuesday from the European Union for a program to improve information about the situation of Syria’s cultural heritage, to fight against illegal trafficking, and to raise awareness in the international community of the looting of artifacts.

UNESCO plans to set up an office in Beirut and launch the program in several months, he said. Syria is one of the cradles of civilization, first Chrstianity and then Islam, Mr. Bandarin said.

The only piece of good news, Mr. Bandarin said, is that the government’s director of antiquities has emptied 34 major museums of their contents which have been transferred "to safe havens".