Islamist militants have seized control of nearly half of Syrian territory after their capture of the ancient city of Palmyra.
On Thursday, the extremists claimed “complete control” of Palmyra, home to a Unesco world heritage site, sparking fears that treasured antiquities may be destroyed as happened in other captured historic cities, the Financial Times reported Friday..
Syrian state television said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had withdrawn from the Palmyra, known to most Syrians by its Arabic name Tadmur.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the capture means about 50 per cent of Syria is under Islamist control but much of that land is desert.
“We woke up to find them patrolling the city… there were more than 200 soldiers’ corpses thrown in the streets,” said an opposition activist in the town, who goes by the name Abu Mohammed.
“The only problem is the regime has kept up its random shelling, so most of the casualties are civilians. We’ve lost 25 so far.”
He said the militants had not yet touched Palmyra’s renowned ancient ruins, which lie to the southwest of the modern city.
Ancient Palmyra is known to the world for its iconic avenue of Roman columns.
It was a cultural crossroads of the ancient world. The city dates back to the first century when it was an oasis on a trade route linking eastern civilisations with the Roman empire. Its ruins lie to the southwest of modern Tadmur.
“Palmyra is an extraordinary World Heritage site in the desert and any destruction to Palmyra [would be] not just a war crime but … an enormous loss to humanity,” Unesco head Irina Bokova said in a video.
The jihadists have developed a reputation for destroying or selling cultural treasures. Earlier this year, it filmed fighters smashing Assyrian artefacts at sites in northwestern Iraq.
Activists say regime officials had removed most of the statues from Palmyra’s museums, leaving behind only the ancient ruins.
“I believe the ruins will be safe because they are not statues that they can claim were once worshipped,” Abu Mohammed said.
Palmyra is a strategic target with military bases and an airport, as well as major roads linking it to the capital Damascus and the central city of Homs.
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