Islamic State fighters seized part of the historic Syrian city of Palmyra on Wednesday after heavy clashes with the Syrian military and allied combatants.
As they have swept across Syria and Iraq, the extremists have destroyed or damaged numerous ancient sites and major cultural artifacts, condemning them as idolatry, even as they pillage and sell off more portable items to finance their activities. The militants’ approach to the ruins of ancient Palmyra, with their grand 2,000-year-old colonnades and tombs, has raised fears both locally and internationally that they too may be destroyed.
Modern Palmyra, also known as Tadmur, is a relatively remote desert outpost of 50,000 people, but it sits astride the main road from the Islamic State strongholds in the east to the more populous west of Syria. It is also near gas fields that the militant group has repeatedly attacked, and last week managed to partially seize. Syrian government forces held the militants out of the city for several days, but withdrew from some checkpoints on Wednesday, residents said.
It is feared that the jihadists will destroy the ancient ruins if they take control of the city.
“IS fighters seized the northern parts of the city, which amount to a third of Palmyra,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Regime forces fled from these neighborhoods,” he added.
On Friday, as they advanced toward the city, the ISIS terrorists executed at least 23 civilians — nine of them children.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nine children were among the 23 shot dead by ISIS militants near the Unesco world heritage site.
“The Islamic State group executed by gunfire 23 civilians, including nine children, in the village of Amiriyeh, north of Tadmor,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Palmyra, which means City of Palms, is known in Arabic as Tadmor, or City of Dates.
Abdel Rahman said family members of government employees were among those murdered.
CNN reported that about “100 to 150 ISIS fighters were in the area Wednesday and were as close as 700 meters” from the ancient site.
Some of the artifacts have been relocated for safekeeping according to the NYT:
Khaled al-Homsi, an activist who opposes both the government and the Islamic State and closely monitors the Palmyra ruins, said that government workers removed artifacts from the museum near the site on Wednesday, and that other objects were taken away earlier for safekeeping. Syria’s chief antiquities official told Reuters that hundreds of statues had been relocated.
He said that in recent days, strikes by Syrian government warplanes had come dangerously close to the site’s medieval citadel. Islamic State fighters were moving farther into the modern city on Wednesday afternoon, he said, but had not yet reached the ancient site.
The UNESCO world heritage site of Palmyra is considered “an archaeological gem,” CNN’s Nima Elbagir reported. The “so-called Venice of the sands” has been threatened by the advance of ISIS.