Islamic State militants close in on Syria's historic Palmyra
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Islamic State group militants advanced on the Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday, raising fears that the UNESCO world heritage site faces imminent destruction at the hands of the same jihadists who destroyed ancient Iraqi artefacts earlier this year.
Syria's head of antiquities issued an urgent appeal for international action to save Palmyra, saying the extremist militants of the Islamic State (IS) group were less than two kilometres from the remains of what UNESCO calls "one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world".
The world "must mobilise before, not after, the destruction of the artefacts" at the site, Mamoun Abdulkarim told AFP by phone.
"IS has not entered the city yet, and we hope these barbarians will never enter," he said.
If the militants make it to Palmyra, he said, it will be an "international catastrophe".
UNESCO describes Palmyra as a heritage site of "outstanding universal value".
The ancient city stood on a caravan route at the crossroads of several civilisations, and its 1st- and 2nd-century temples and colonnaded streets are a unique blend of Graeco-Roman and Persian influences.
'Barbarism and savagery'
The jihadist advance on the well-preserved remains came as an international conference was under way in Cairo to address the destruction already wreaked by the militants on the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq.
Foreign affairs and antiquities officials from 11 Arab countries gathered in Egypt to condemn the jihadists' demolition of Iraq's heritage with sledgehammers, bulldozers and high explosives.
Abdulkarim said Syria's antiquities officials would try to ensure the safety of the artefacts found in Palmyra's archaeological digs over the years which are now housed in an adjacent museum.
"We can protect the statues and artefacts, but we cannot protect the architecture, the temples," he said.
"IS will just destroy it from the outside."
Abdulkarim said he had no doubt that if Palmyra fell to the jihadists, it would suffer a similar fate to ancient Nimrud, which they blew up earlier this year.
"If IS enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction... It will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul."
It would not be the first time that government troops have lost control of Palmyra.
Anti-regime rebels held the site from February to September 2013 before the regime recaptured it. One of the ancient city's masterpieces, the Temple of Baal, suffered some damage during the accompanying artillery exchanges.
But those fighters did not share the Islamic State group's fanatical devotion to demolishing all of the region's pre-Islamic heritage.
As they overran nearby villages, Islamic State militants executed 26 civilians – 10 of whom were beheaded – for "collaborating with the regime", the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman confirmed that the city was "under threat" as fierce fighting and shelling continued on its eastern edges amid a regime counter-offensive.
There was ferocious fighting as the jihadists overran the town of al Sukhnah on Wednesday in their drive across the desert towards Palmyra.
Syria's official news agency reported that military aircraft had destroyed militant Islamist vehicles near al Sukhnah and that army units "killed IS terrorists" in the area.
Provincial Governor Talal Barazi said that 1,800 families who had fled the advancing jihadists were being sheltered in reception centres in the adjacent modern town of Tadmur.
Both sides suffered heavy losses in the battle for al Sukhnah, including senior commanders, the Observatory said.
The army lost 70 men, including six officers. The Islamists lost 55 men, including two commanders, one of them the leader of the offensive.
Jihadist websites named him as Abu Malik Anas al-Nashwan, who appeared in an IS group video showing the beheadings of 28 Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians in Libya earlier this year.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
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