Islamic State militants stormed the Syrian city of Palmyra on Wednesday, seizing it from government forces in fierce fighting as civilians were evacuated and Syria’s antiquities chief called on the world to save its ancient monuments.
Reuters The capture of Palmyra is the first time the al Qaeda offshoot has taken control of a city directly from the Syrian army and allied forces, which have already lost ground in the northwest and south to other insurgent groups in recent weeks.
The central city, also known as Tadmur, is built alongside the remains of a oasis civilisation whose colonnaded streets, temple and theatre have stood for 2,000 years.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Islamic State had seized almost all of the city. It said it was unclear what had happened to forces stationed at an army outpost on its outskirts or the fate of a major military prison.
The attack is part of a westward advance by Islamic State that is adding to the pressures on the overstretched military and allied militia. The group holds tracts of land in the north and east of Syria and is now edging towards the more heavily populated areas along the western flank of the country.
Palmyra’s ancient monuments, which lie on the south-western fringe of the modern city, were put on UNESCO’s World Heritage in danger list in 2013. The ruins were part of a desert oasis that was one of the most significant cultural centres of the ancient world.
Islamic State supporters posted pictures on social media showing what they said were gunmen in the streets of Palmyra, which is the location of one of Syria’s biggest weapons depots as well as army bases, an airport and a major prison.
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