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IS militants seize control of Palmyra as Syrian forces withdraw

SANA, HO, AFP | A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on May 17 shows the ancient oasis city of Palmyra

Syrian pro-government forces withdrew from the ancient city of Palmyra on Wednesday after militants from the Islamic State (IS) group entered its neighbourhoods in large numbers, Syrian state television reported.

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Most of Palmyra’s civilian population had been evacuated before the troop withdrawal, according to state TV, which added that IS group fighters were trying to enter the city’s historical sites.

The capture of Palmyra comes as a blow to the Syrian army and allied forces, which have already lost ground in the northwest and south to other insurgent groups in recent weeks.

The central city, also known as Tadmur, is built alongside the remains of an ancient civilisation whose colonnaded streets, temple and theatre have stood for 2,000 years.

It is home to modern military installations and sits on a desert highway linking the capital Damascus with Syria’s eastern provinces, which are mostly under rebel control.

“The news at the moment is very bad. There are small groups that managed to enter the city from certain points,” Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told Reuters earlier on Wednesday.

Abdulkarim said hundreds of statues had been moved to safe locations but called on the Syrian army, opposition and international community to save the site, which UNESCO calls "one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world".

“The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved,” he said. “This is the entire world’s battle.”

The attack is part of a westward advance by the IS group that has increased pressure on the country’s already overstretched military and allied militia. The group holds tracts of land in the north and east of Syria and is now edging towards the more heavily populated areas along the western flank of the country.

Unique cultural heritage

Earlier, UNESCO urged for an immediate halt to the fighting and called for international efforts to protect the population “and safeguard the unique cultural heritage”.

The IS group is known to have destroyed antiquities and ancient monuments in neighbouring Iraq and is being targeted by US-led air strikes in both countries.

Palmyra’s ancient monuments, which lie on the southwestern fringe of the modern city, were put on UNESCO’s World Heritage in danger list in 2013. The ruins were part of a desert oasis that was one of the most significant cultural centres of the ancient world.

IS group supporters posted pictures on social media showing what they said were gunmen in the streets of Palmyra, which is the location of one of Syria’s biggest weapons depots as well as army bases, an airport and a major prison.

In Syria’s northeast, Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes pressed an attack that has killed at least 170 of members of the IS group this week, according to a Kurdish official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

US-led forces have concentrated their air strikes on Syria’s north and east, areas out of government control.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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