ISIS in control of Syria’s Palmyra ruins, activists say
Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants overran the famed archeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighbouring Iraq.
ISIS in control of Syria’s Palmyra ruins: activists3:24
The ISIS capture of the town of Palmyra late Wednesday was a stunning triumph for the militant group, only days after it captured the strategic city of Ramadi in Iraq’s largest Sunni province.
As ISIS took Palmyra, government forces collapsed in the face
ISIS captures part of ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, home to UNESCO World Heritage Site
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the extremists overrun the archeological site, just to the southwest of the town itself, shortly after midnight Wednesday.
The ruins at Palmyra are one of the world’s most renowned historic sites and there were fears the extremists would destroy them as they did major archeological sites in Iraq. The UNESCO world heritage site is famous for its 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and other ruins and priceless artifacts. Before the war, thousands of tourists a year visited the remote desert outpost, a cherished landmark referred to by Syrians as the “Bride of the Desert.”
In Damascus, Maamoun Abdul-Karim, the head of the Antiquities and Museum Department, said Palmyra’s town museum had suffered “minor damages” during the ISIS onslaught.
“The city is now totally controlled by gunmen and its destiny is dark and dim,” warned Abdul-Karim. “We are in a state of anticipation and fear” about what will happen to “the archeological site and the remaining artifacts in the museum.”
Before the fall, hundreds of “the most precious and beautiful” pieces from Palmyra were taken to safe houses in Damascus, he added.
Also Thursday, many Palmyra residents were fleeing the town toward the city of Homs and the capital, Damascus, according to Talal Barazi,
In this picture released on Wednesday by the website of ISIS militants, a militant fighter fires his weapon during a battle against Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. (Website of Islamic State militants/Associated Press)
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 ISIS reinforcements.
“We have not received any news about (the archeological 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.
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On Wednesday, the head of the UN’s cultural agency called on Syria’s warring factions to immediately end hostilities within the archeological site.
“I am deeply concerned by the situation at the site of Palmyra. The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East and its civilian population,” UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said in a statement.
She urged all parties to respect international obligations to protect cultural heritage during conflict.
In taking the town, ISIS also overran Palmyra’s notorious Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian dissidents have been imprisoned and tortured over the years.
An amateur video posted online showed IS fighters setting 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 ISIS 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.