Islamic State militants have taken near complete control of the Syrian city of Palmyra, home to some of the world’s most magnificent ancient ruins.
There are fears that the militants will destroy the ruins, which Unesco has designated a World Heritage site.
Government troops have almost entirely withdrawn from the city following an IS advance, an eyewitness told the BBC.
IS militants have demolished several ancient sites that pre-date Islam in Iraq, including Hatra and Nimrud.
Activists earlier said the group controlled much of north Tadmur, the modern town adjoining the ancient site of Palmyra, after overcoming militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
‘Extremely violent clashes’
Syrian state television reported citizens had been evacuated from the city amid the violence.
Omar Hamza, an activist in Palmyra, told the BBC that the area had already been “bombarded very heavily” by both IS and the government.
“There are extremely violent clashes to the east of the city,” Mr Hamza said.
“Most of the historical artefacts are to the south of the city. They are between the city and the agricultural land held by IS, which has shelled the area without any regard for protecting them.”
Hundreds of Palmyra’s statues have been moved to safety but large monuments from the ancient parts of the city could not be moved.
“This is the entire world’s battle,” said Syria’s head of antiquities Maamoun Abdul Karim. He called on the US-led military coalition against IS to prevent the group destroying the ancient site.
Rising out of the desert, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, according to Unesco, the UN’s cultural agency.
The site, most of which dates back to the 1st and 2nd Century when the region was under Roman rule, is dominated by a grand, colonnaded street.
Unesco’s Director-General Irina Bokova said she was “deeply concerned” by the situation.
“The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population,” she said in a statement.
Palmyra and Tadmur are situated in a strategically important area on the road between the capital, Damascus, and the contested eastern city of Deir al-Zour, and is close to gas fields.
Taking control of the area would therefore be an important strategic gain for IS, says BBC Arab affairs analyst, Sebastian Usher.
But the world’s focus is on the ruins and IS has taken pleasure in devastating and destroying similarly priceless, pre-Islamic archaeological treasures in Iraq, condemning them as idolatrous, he adds.
A United States-led coalition has carried out air strikes on the jihadist group’s positions since September 2014. However, it says it does not co-ordinate its actions with the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, the US said it was sending 1,000 anti-tank missiles to the Iraqi government following the fall of Ramadi to IS.
A US State Department official told reporters that the loss of the city would force Washington to take an “extremely hard look” at its strategy against the militants.
“You’d have to be delusional not to take something like this and say, ‘What went wrong, how do you fix it and how do we correct course to go from here?'” they said.
Palmyra: the ‘Venice of the Sands’ – Professor Kevin Butcher
Palmyra is the last place anyone would expect to find a forest of stone columns and arches. But for anyone visiting, the key reason for the site’s prosperity becomes immediately apparent: ancient Palmyra sits at the edge of an oasis of date palms and gardens.
For such a remote city, Palmyra occupies a prominent place in Middle Eastern history. From modest beginnings in the 1st Century BC, the city gradually rose to prominence under the aegis of Rome until, during the 3rd Century AD, the city’s rulers challenged Roman power and created an empire of their own that stretched from Turkey to Egypt.
Palmyra was a great Middle Eastern achievement, and was unlike any other city of the Roman Empire. Like Venice, the city formed the hub of a vast trade network, only with the desert as its sea and camels as its ships.
Only small parts of the site have been excavated. Most of the archaeology lies just beneath the surface rather than deeply buried, and it is particularly vulnerable to looting.
If the city is destroyed by IS, a major chapter in Middle Eastern history and culture will be yet another casualty of this tragic conflict. – BBC News