Islamic State group extremists advanced to the outskirts of the Syrian town of Palmyra on Thursday, putting the group within striking distance of some of the world’s most magnificent antiquities.
BEIRUT — Islamic State group extremists advanced to the outskirts of the Syrian town of Palmyra on Thursday, putting the group within striking distance of some of the world’s most magnificent antiquities.
That raised fears that the ancient city of Palmyra, with its complex of columns, tombs and ancient temples dating to the first century A.D., could be looted or destroyed. Fighters from the Islamic State group have already destroyed large parts of ancient sites at Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh in Iraq.
Islamic State leaders denounce pre-Islamic art and architecture as idolatrous even as they sell smaller, more portable artifacts to finance their violent rampage through the region.
The fighting Thursday took place a little more than a mile from the city’s grand 2,000-year-old ruins, which stand as the crossroad of Greek, Roman, Persian and Islamic cultures.
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People in Palmyra described a state of anxiety and chaos, with residents trying to flee the northern neighborhoods. Shelling could be heard in the background as they spoke over Skype.
According to residents and one government soldier fighting elsewhere, scores of soldiers and pro-government militiamen fighting in the east and north of the town had been killed by Islamic State fighters since Monday.
“People are scared, staying home, we’re hearing loud noises outside, but we don’t know what’s happening,” said Mohammad, who runs a shop selling antiques near the gates of the ancient ruins and who asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his safety. “If the roads were safe, we would leave the town, but pray for us, and pray for peace.”
The soldier and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, said that civilians had also been killed, some of them beheaded, in the town of Soukhna several miles outside Palmyra.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, said that the treasures of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, were in serious danger.
“If IS enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction,” Abdulkarim told Agence France-Presse, referring to the abbreviation of the Islamic State group. “If the ancient city falls, it will be an international catastrophe.”
The advance on Palmyra, also known as Tadur, gave the Islamic State group more control over the highway from the town to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour and parts of a sprawling gas field. It comes at a time when the government of President Bashar Assad has faced new challenges in the seemingly implacable civil war. A coalition of rival insurgent groups recently wrested the northern provincial capital of Idlib from government control.
Khaled al-Homsi, an anti-government activist who monitors damage and looting of antiquities in Palmyra, said the sites have been threatened and damaged by fighters from all sides of the Syrian conflict.
Homsi said Thursday that he saw two government airstrikes hit near the medieval citadel that sits on an outcropping above the ancient city.