YAGOUR, Morocco — Morocco's government on Thursday denied claims that Salafists had destroyed stone carvings dating back more than 8,000 years in the High Atlas mountains.
"The reports that these stone carvings were damaged, as you can see, is not true," Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi told journalists, on a government organised trip to the Yagour plateau.
"It is one of our goals to protect these pre-historic monuments, which reflect Morocco's cultural diversity and the deepness of our history," Khalfi told AFP.
More than a dozen undamaged carvings of the sun, depicted as a divinity, were visible on rocks located in the middle of the valley south of Marrakesh, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Mount Toubkal, Morocco's highest peak.
Earlier, the culture ministry had issued a statement strongly denying claims by a local rights group, reported in the Moroccan media and by AFP, that the stones had been destroyed by Salafists.
"This kind of incident, contrary to our values, cannot take place in Morocco," it said, adding that an investigation carried out with local and regional authorities had showed that the claims were unfounded.
But such sites "can suffer, like elsewhere, the effects of natural and even human degradation, sometimes through vandalism and trafficking."
The Amazigh (Berber) League for Human Rights had said on Wednesday that a number of the carvings in the Yagour valley had been destroyed by hardline Salafists, including the largest, called 'the plaque of the sun.'
The carving appeared untouched on Thursday.
Salafists, Muslims who adhere to a hardline Sunni interpretation of Islam similar to that practised in Saudi Arabia, which strictly prohibits "idolatry," have enjoyed a surge in strength in Arab Spring countries, benefiting from wider freedom.
Late on Monday, one of Tunisia's main Sufi mausoleums was burned down in an overnight arson attack, seemingly the latest in a spate of attacks on unorthodox Sufi shrines by the country's increasingly assertive Salafists.
In northern Mali, which is close to Morocco, radical Islamists have destroyed ancient World Heritage shrines they consider idolatrous since seizing control of the region earlier this year.
Morocco's communication minister on Thursday emphasised the efforts by the ministry of culture to protect its archaeological sites since the 1970s, and insisted that the Salafists were not a threat in the kingdom.
"Morocco is an exception... We've heard the stories (about what they have done) in other countries. But not here in Morocco, God willing," Khalfi said.
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