Islamic State militants are in full control of the famed archaeological site at Palmyra, after seizing the ancient town in central Syria.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the extremists overran the archaeological site, just to the southwest of the city of Palmyra, shortly after midnight Thursday, putting the world heritage site at risk of destruction.
An activist in the central province of Homs who goes by the name of Bebars al-Talawy also says that IS now controls the ruins at Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and other ruins and priceless artifacts.
Both activists said Thursday that IS has not damaged the ruins so far.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP that regime troops had pulled back from positions in and around Palmyra, including from an army intelligence outpost, a military airport and a prison which the jihadists captured overnight.
Known as Tadmor in the Bible, tradition holds the city was first fortified by the Israelite King Solomon over 3,000 years ago. Before the war, thousands of tourists a year visited the remote desert outpost, also known as the “Bride of the Desert.”
The takeover raised fears that the extremists would destroy the majestic ancient ruins that are one of the region’s most renowned historical sites, as they did major archaeological sites in Iraq.
Many Palmyra residents were fleeing the town toward the city of Homs and the capital, Damascus, according to Talal Barazi,
Barzai, the governor of the central province of Homs, which includes Palmyra, told The Associated Press that the Syrian army is now outside the town, from where it is targeting Islamic State reinforcements.
“We have not received any news about (the archaeological site’s) destruction,” Barazi said. “We hope that there will be no massacres in the city or damage to the ruins.”
Palmyra has a population of some 65,000 people, according to Barazi. He added that 1,300 residents fled over the past days and more were trying to leave on Thursday.
In taking the town, IS also overran Palmyra’s notorious Tadmor prison, where thousands of Syrian dissidents have been imprisoned and tortured over the years.
An amateur video posted online showed IS fighters setting alight a giant poster of President Bashar Assad, allegedly inside the prison in Palmyra, cheering as flames rose around them against the night sky.
The video and its location could not be independently verified but appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.
Al-Talawy, the Homs activist, said the government had recently transferred thousands of detainees from the Palmyra prison to a jail near Damascus.
But he added that IS extremists freed some of those who were still inside by the time they captured the prison. He could not provide any definitive figures but there were believed to have been thousands prisoners still there.
The Islamic State group sparked international outrage earlier this year in Iraq when they blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod and smashed artifacts in the Mosul museum.
“I am terrified,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums. “This is a PR battle for Daesh, and they will insist on scoring victory against civilization by destroying the ancient ruins,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
The fall of Palmyra just days after Islamic State fighters seized the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi showed the extremists’ ability to advance on multiple fronts at opposite ends of a sprawling battlefield that spans the two countries — and erased any sense that recent IS losses in Tikrit and elsewhere had dealt a major blow to the militants.
IS fighters had also seized control of the Jazl oil field in the Homs countryside, the Aaamaq report said.
The fall of Palmyra into the militants’ hands will be an enormous loss to the Syrian government, not only because of its cultural significance, but because it would open the way to key government-held areas including Homs and Damascus.
Earlier Wednesday, Homs governor Talal Barazzi said Islamic State militants had infiltrated overnight into some districts in the northern part of Palmyra and were engaged in fierce gun battles with government forces as snipers roamed the streets. He said at least 19 people had died by early Wednesday, including seven civilians and 12 from the pro-government militia known as the National Defense Forces. It was not immediately known how many people died as fighting continued throughout the day.
Abdulkarim said workers were able to save hundreds of statues and masterpieces from Palmyra that were transported to safe houses in Damascus. “But how do you save colonnades that weigh a ton? How do you save temples and cemeteries and, and, and?” he asked.
Before its capture, Abdulkarim appealed to the international community to declare “a red line” around Palmyra and called on the US-led coalition to “at least prevent IS convoys from reaching it.”
Until now, US-led airstrikes in Syria have focused on areas outside Syrian government control so as not to appear to be aiding President Bashar Assad.
Syrian antiquities expert and opposition figure Amr Al-Azm noted the irony of anti-Assad activists having to call on the US-led coalition to support Assad’s forces in the city against the Islamic State militants.
“We are trapped in a sickening paradox where, to save the world heritage site of Palmyra we are forced to call on the international community and the coalition to attack ISIS forces in support of the Syrian regime, which is defending the city,” he wrote in a Facebook posting this week.