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Israeli archeologists said Wednesday they fear priceless relics could be damaged by a mechanical digger being used by Muslim caretakers to carve out a utility trench at the Temple Mount.

The work is being carried out on the plaza revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount.

"It is appalling that in one of the most important archaeological sites in the country, heavy machinery is used in a barbaric way to dig a ditch 120 meters long and 1.5 meters deep," said Gabriel Barkay, an archeologist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

He and other members of the Israeli-based Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, have criticized the Israel Antiquities Authority for allowing the Waqf, the Muslim caretakers of the site, to conduct the work.

Dalit Menzin, a spokeswoman for the Antiquities Authority declined to comment.

Sheikh Abdel al-Azeem Salhab, president of the Waqf Council, which is charged with day-to-day administration of the compound, denied the digging would cause any archaeological damage.

The trench is being dug to replace decades-old electric wiring at the complex, which now houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and was the site during biblical times of two Jewish Temples.

The future of the compound is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I assure you that the area where the electrical cables are being extended was excavated in the past and there is nothing of value in it that can be damaged or destroyed," Salhab said.

Barkay said earth from the trench contained pottery shards dating to the Byzantine period. He cautioned that more relics still underground could be harmed.

Christian, Muslim and Jewish heritage could "fall victim to this heinous act", Barkay said.

In February, an Israeli dig intended to salvage ancient artifacts before construction of a new walkway leading to the holy complex sparked worldwide protests by Muslims who said they feared the two mosques would be damaged.

The Jerusalem municipality denied any harm would come to the shrines but scrapped its original construction plan and ordered a committee to prepare new blueprints and hold public hearings on the project.

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