A week or so ago, some folks (Jim Davilia, Dorothy King) were expressing doubt over a National Geographic report about how various sites had come out of the recent hostilities in Lebanon unscathed. Interestingly, those doubts were followed by journalistic reassurances of same. Today, however, we read in the Observer:

Monuments in two of the world's most important heritage sites are in need of 'urgent repair' as a result of the recent conflict in Lebanon, a United Nations mission to the region has discovered.

A Roman tomb in Tyre and a medieval tower in Byblos have been significantly damaged by the war, the official leading a survey of Lebanese archaeological sites told The Observer late last week.

Unesco, the educational, scientific and cultural arm of the United Nations, is set to announce the results of its damage assessment mission tomorrow. The survey was launched after the international archaeological community, including the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, urged the organisation to investigate the effects of bombing on one of the planet's most heritage-rich countries.

The head of Unesco's mission, Mounir Bouchenaki, said that the most extreme damage had been seen at the world heritage sites of Tyre and Byblos.

At Tyre some of 'the finest examples of imperial Roman architecture in the world' had suffered direct damage, including the collapse of a fresco on a tomb only a few metres from the site's core. The official said that he intended to propose the commencement of urgent repair work in the area.

At Byblos the effects of an oil spill - which occurred after the Israeli government bombed a depot in Jiyeh, 15 miles south of Beirut - are more obvious. Bouchenaki said some of the archaeological remains from the Venetian period near the city's harbour were dramatically stained and would be difficult to clean. He said that a 'medieval tower' from the time of the Crusades had also been affected.

A strike by Israeli warplanes caused the oil spill at Jiyeh, where millions of gallons of oil gushed into the sea. Not since Saddam Hussein deliberately pumped crude oil into the Persian Gulf in 1991 has an act of war caused so devastating a maritime environmental crisis. The Temple of Bacchus in the city of Baalbek, another world heritage site, is also suffering from widening cracks in its structure. Bouchenaki added that further investigation would be needed to ascertain whether these had been exacerbated by the war.

His comments came after MacGregor and the British Museum's expert on Middle Eastern archaeology, John Curtis, expressed concern that vibration had caused irrevocable damage to the temple. Curtis described Baalbek as 'quite possibly one of the most important Roman period sites in the East Mediterranean', and said that he would be 'very surprised' if Unesco did not report some war damage there. The cracks are purportedly the result of vibrations arising from explosions nearby, and not from direct hits.

Two other historical sites, at Bint Jbeil and Chamaa, while not on the world heritage register, have also been 'extensively damaged'. At Bint Jbeil a medieval wall has been seriously hit.

The damage assessment mission to the Middle East was announced earlier this month by Unesco's director general, Koichiro Matsuura, who expressed the organisation's intention to visit the world heritage sites of Tyre, Baalbek and Byblos. Byblos, located north of Beirut, bears testimony to the earliest stages of the Phoenician civilisation and early 'urban organisation' in the Mediterranean world. The Phoenicians first settled in Lebanon five thousand years ago.

Bouchenaki added that a team of French experts were to be flown to Lebanon by the French government to instruct 15 to 20 Lebanese youths in the archaeological clean-up operation necessary at Byblos.

UPDATE: Dorothy King adds some pertinent comments ...