Islamic State seizes ancient Syrian city of Palmyra

Rebel fighters walk in Mastouma village, after they said they had advanced on the area, in Idlib city in Syria, May 20, 2015. ― Reuters pic
Rebel fighters walk in Mastouma village, after they said they had advanced on the area, in Idlib city in Syria, May 20, 2015. ― Reuters pic

BEIRUT, May 20 ― Islamic State militants took control of areas of the historic Syrian city of Palmyra from government forces in fierce fighting today, and the Syrian antiquities chief called on the world to save its ancient heritage from the jihadists.

The central city, known as Tadmur in Arabic, is home to a Unesco World Heritage site and is also a strategic military location in central Syria linked by highways to the cities of Homs and Damascus, some 240km to the southwest.

“The news at the moment is very bad. There are small groups that managed to enter the city from certain points,” Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told Reuters.

“There were very fierce clashes.”

Abdulkarim, who received Unesco’s Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize last year, said hundreds of statues had been moved to safe locations but called on the Syrian army, opposition and international community to save the site.

“The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved,” he said. “This is the entire world’s battle.”

Islamic State has destroyed antiquities and ancient monuments in neighbouring Iraq and is being targeted by US-led air strikes in both countries.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said that al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State had captured around a third of Palmyra.

Palmyra’s 2,000-year-old 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.

The attack is part of a westward advance by Islamic State that is adding to the pressures on President Bashar al-Assad’s overstretched military and allied militia that are also losing ground to insurgents in the northwest.

Syrian state television said in a news flash that armed forces had confronted “the Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist group” when it tried to enter a northern Palmyra neighbourhood.

A video posted by an activist network on YouTube appeared to show black smoke rising into the sky. The caption dated May 20 said it was footage of air strikes on the city. A communications tower and a citadel could be seen in the video.

The Observatory said the two sides were shelling each other and that the military had carried out air strikes.

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.

Kurds battle Islamic State in northeast 

In Syria’s northeast, Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes are pressing an attack on Islamic State that has killed at least 170 members of the jihadist group this week, a Kurdish official and the Observatory said.

The official said Kurdish YPG fighters and allied militia had encircled Islamic State in a dozen villages near the town of Tel Tamr in Hasaka province, which borders land controlled by Islamic State in neighbouring Iraq.

The Kurdish YPG, trying to drive Islamic State from a stronghold in the mountainous Jabal Abdul Aziz area to the southwest of Tel Tamr, had taken control of large parts of the area, the Observatory said.

The US-led alliance bombing Islamic State has been coordinating its air strikes in Hasaka with the YPG, after joining forces with the Kurds to drive the jihadists from Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab, in January.

The Kurdish official, Nasir Haj Mansour, said around 80 Islamic State fighters were killed in an ambush when they tried to flee the Tel Tamr area for Jabal Abdul Aziz earlier this week. Dozens more were killed in air strikes.

“The confirmed number of (Islamic State) dead is between 170 and 200,” said Mansour, speaking by telephone from Syria.

US special forces reached deep into eastern Syria in the early hours of Saturday for a ground assault against Islamic State, killing not only the declared target, but also two other important figures. ― Reuters