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Syrian army pushes back Islamists from ancient Palmyra

World Heritage Site rocked by fighting between Islamic State and forces loyal to the government; 76 reported killed

Syrians walking in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra on March 14, 2014. (AFP/Joseph Eid)
Syrians walking in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra on March 14, 2014. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

Syria’s antiquities chief voiced guarded relief on Sunday as government troops pushed jihadists of the Islamic State group back from the remains of ancient Palmyra.

The jihadists, who have demolished several ancient sites in neighboring Iraq, had advanced to within a kilometer (less than a mile) of the UNESCO world heritage site, one of the jewels of classical architecture.

“We have good news today, we feel much better,” antiquities chief Mamoun Abdulkarim told AFP by telephone.

“There was no damage to the ruins, but this does not mean we should not be afraid.”

Provincial governor Talal Barazi told AFP that the army had recaptured northern districts of the modern town of Tadmor which the jihadists had overrun on Saturday.

“IS’s attack was foiled, and we ousted them from the northern parts of Tadmur,” Barazi said.

“The army is still… combing the streets for bombs.”

The jihadists launched a lightning offensive across the desert last week from their stronghold in the Euphrates Valley to the east, triggering ferocious fighting with the army, which has a major base just outside the oasis town.

At least 23 regime loyalists and 29 jihadists were killed as IS overran northern parts of the town on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Barazi said the army had killed “more than 130 jihadists.” He gave no figure for the army’s losses.

The governor said Tadmur’s peacetime population of 70,000 had been swamped by an influx of civilians fleeing the IS advance.

“We are taking all necessary precautions, and we are working on securing humanitarian aid quickly in fear of mass fleeing from the city,” he said.

Abdulkarim said he remained concern for the ancient site and its adjacent museum, in light of the destruction wreaked by IS on pre-Islamic sites like Nimrud and Hatra in neighbouring Iraq.

The antiquities chief said he had been “living in a state of terror” that IS would destroy the 1st and 2nd century temples and colonnaded streets that are among Palymra’s architectural treasures.

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