DAMASCUS: The Islamic State group seized Syria’s Palmyra on Thursday, reportedly giving it control of half of the country as UNESCO warned the destruction of the ancient city would be “an enormous loss to humanity”.
Experts said the capture of the 2,000-year-old metropolis leaves IS strongly placed to wrest control of more territory from Syria’s government and comes days after it expanded its grip in Iraq.
US President Barack Obama played down the developments as a tactical setback and denied the Washington-led coalition was “losing” to IS, but French President Francois Hollande said the world must act to stop the extremists and save Palmyra.
UNESCO chief Irina Bokova called the ancient metropolis “the birthplace of human civilization”, adding: “It belongs to the whole of humanity and I think everyone today should be worried about what is happening.”
In a new move consolidating their grip in Syria, IS on Thursday seized Al-Tanaf, the last regime-held crossing on the border with Iraq, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The monitor said IS control of Al-Tanaf, known as Al-Walid by Iraqis, means Syrian government forces have lost control over the porous border.
The Observatory said jihadists spread out Thursday through Palmyra, including at the archaeological site in the city’s southwest, and killed 17 people accused of “working with the regime”.
Syrian state media said loyalist troops withdrew after “a large number of IS terrorists entered the city” at the crossroads of key highways leading west to Damascus and Homs, and east to Iraq.
IS proclaimed Palmyra’s capture online and posted video and several pictures, including of a hospital and a prison and a military airbase, but none of the ancient site.
The jihadists, notorious for demolishing archaeological treasures since declaring a “caliphate” last year straddling Iraq and Syria, fought their way into Palmyra on foot.
‘A loss for all humanity’
Known in Syria as “the pearl of the desert”, Palmyra is home to colonnaded alleys, elaborately decorated tombs and ancient Greco-Roman ruins.
IS sparked international outrage this year when it blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed artifacts in the Mosul museum, both in Iraq.