By Dominic Evans and Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi soldiers recaptured on Sunday the town of Nimrud, next to the ruins of the 3,000-year-old Assyrian city which was overrun and bulldozed two years ago by Islamic State militants.
Nimrud, once the capital of an empire stretching across the ancient Middle East, is one of several historic sites looted and ransacked by the militants when they seized large parts of northern Iraq two years ago.
The militant group, whose ultra-hardline doctrine deems the country's pre-Islamic religious heritage idolatrous, released video footage last year showing its fighters bulldozing, drilling and blowing up murals and statues at Nimrud.
Those statues included the famous winged bulls with human faces, known as lamassu, which stood at the entrances to the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, king of Assyria in the 9th century BC, and nearby temples on the site.
"Troops from the Ninth Armoured Division liberated Nimrud town completely and raised the Iraqi flag above its buildings," the statement said. The town of Nimrud lies 1 km (less than 1 mile) west of the ruins.
The soldiers also captured the village of Numaniya, on the edge of ancient Nimrud, the capital of an Assyrian empire reaching from Egypt to parts of modern-day Iran and Turkey.
Nimrud lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris river, 30 km (20 miles) south of Mosul where Iraqi soldiers are battling Islamic State for the largest city under the militants' control in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
"VICTORY FOR HUMANITY"
Iraq's deputy culture minister Qais Hussain Rasheed did not say whether soldiers were inside the actual ancient city itself, but he said that recapturing the remains of Iraq's rich heritage from the jihadists was a triumph for the whole world.
Islamic State still controls other Assyrian landmarks including the ruins of Nineveh and Khorsabad, as well as the 2,000-year-old desert city of Hatra, famed for its pillared temple which blended Graeco-Roman and eastern architecture.
"Liberation of ancient Iraqi archeological sites from the control of forces of dark and evil is a victory not only to Iraqis but for all humanity," Rasheed, deputy minister for tourism and antiquities at the culture ministry, told Reuters.
The scale of the damage inflicted on the sites is not completely clear, but Iraqi officials say some buildings have been totally destroyed.
A report by Rasheed's ministry last year said one of the carved wall panels at Nimrud's northern palace was stolen in July 2014. Eight months later, far greater damage was inflicted.
The militants destroyed 10 winged bulls, located at the palace gates and at the temple of Ishtar - goddess of love, war, sex and power - and Nabu - god of literature and wisdom.
A month later in April 2015 "the gangs completely blew up the city and its ancient buildings" the report said.
Rasheed said antiquities authorities had given detailed coordinates to Iraqi forces on the ground and their U.S.-led air support to avoid any accidental damage to the archaeological sites, and also provided information to commanders about "the heritage and antiquities of Nineveh" - where they are operating.
Once sites are retaken from the militants, a special antiquities security team will join security forces there to help them preserve the sites, he added.
Nimrud was excavated in the 19th century by British archaeologist Austen Layard. Max Mallowan and his wife, crime writer Agatha Christie, worked at Nimrud in the 1950s.
Her experiences in Iraq, and journeys from Britain to the Middle East, formed the background to several of her novels including Murder on the Orient Express and Murder in Mesopotamia.
(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)