Italy's Mount Etna wins World Heritage status

Italy's Mount Etna, one of the world's most "active and iconic" volcanoes, was on Friday granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in recognition of its scientific and cultural importance.

The tallest active volcano on the European continent at 3,300 meters (10,900 feet), Mount Etna has been written about for 2,700 years and has "one of the world's longest documented records of historical volcanism", according to UNESCO.

"The diverse and accessible assemblage of volcanic features such as summit craters, cinder cones, lava flows, lava caves and the Valle de Bove depression have made Mount Etna a prime destination for research and education," UNESCO said.

The volcano, in the east of Sicily, is one of the most-studied in the world and "continues to influence volcanology, geophysics and other earth science disciplines", UNESCO added.

"Mount Etna's notoriety, scientific importance, and cultural and educational value are of global significance."

Situated near Catania, Sicily's second city, the volcano, which is some 200 kilometres in circumference, was created by a series of eruptions beneath the sea off the ancient coastline of Sicily some 500,000 years ago.

There are still periodic eruptions at the central crater. Lava flows down the sides of the volcano have sometimes threatened villages, which are built up to around 800 metres.

Catania city has been hit several times during eruptions, including being almost completely destroyed by one of the largest recorded eruptions in 1669, after which it was rebuilt in the Baroque style.

The zone listed by UNESCO -- largely undeveloped except for a few seismic monitoring stations and some shelters along mountain paths -- is part of the Mount Etna National Park, created in 1987.

The Italian delegate to the UNESCO meeting told the committee members that they were "moved and touched" by the decision to recognise the volcano's importance.

According to local legend, on Etna there is a sweet chestnut tree said to have once sheltered hundreds of horsemen during a storm.

The Kingdom of Sicily issued an act of "public protection" for the tree in 1745 -- one of the world's first recorded environmental protection actions.

UNESCO also inscribed the Namib Sand Sea, "the world's only coastal desert that includes extensive dune fields influenced by fog," to the World Heritage list.

"It is an outstanding example of the scenic, geomorphological, ecological and evolutionary consequences of wind-driven processes interacting with geology and biology," UNESCO said, highlighting the richness of flora and fauna in the desert area in Namibia.

Other sites to win World Heritage status Friday included the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve in Mexico thanks to their "dramatic combination of desert landforms, comprising both volcanic and dune systems as dominant features".

The "highly diverse mosaic" of habitats in a "seemingly inhospitable" desert is home to more than 540 species of plants, 44 mammals, more than 200 species of birds and over 40 reptiles.

UNESCO is currently holding a 10-day annual meeting in Phnom Penh where it is considering whether to add 31 sites to the 962-strong World Heritage List of sites of "outstanding universal value".