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Iconic ancient city in Islamic State clutches

May 21, 2015 20:18 IST

The fate of the UNESCO world heritage site of Palmyra seems to be tragically sealed as the Islamic State militia gained control of the Syrian city.

Image: The Temple of Bel is pictured with the ruins, at the historical city of Palmyra. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

In a statement labelled "Breaking News," ISIS announced the victory in Palmyra and said its fighters were in control of the "notorious" nearby prison and airport. The statement -- released by the ISIS authority in Homs and distributed by the group's supporters on Twitter -- said that retreating pro-government forces had left behind "large numbers" of their dead.

Syrian state TV acknowledged that pro-government forces had withdrawn from Palmyra -- marking what appeared to be the first time ISIS had directly seized a city from forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Image: The Temple of Bel is illuminated in the historical city of Palmyra. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

The city of 50,000 people is significant because it sits among gas fields and astride a network of roads across the country’s central desert, the New York Times reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground, said some residents had headed to the city of Homs but others stayed home, while state media said most of Palmyra's civilians had been evacuated.

IS also seized Palmyra's prison, notorious for the killings of hundreds of regime prisoners in the 1980s and seen as a symbol of oppression during the reign of President Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez al-Assad.

Image: A tourist takes pictures of the columns in the Temple of Bel at the historical city of Palmyra. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, 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, from the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.

Image: A general view of the Temple of Bel in the historical city of Palmyra. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

The capture of Palmyra gives the militants as much of a strategic gem as a cultural one.

"There's a lot of strategic assets in the area which ISIS will be gunning for -- military bases, weapons depots, oil and gas facilities," said Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre told NBC News, adding, "For ISIS, whenever moving in, territory is key but the thing it really prioritizes is strategic assets."

Now, fears of the IS targeting and destroying the monuments run large among the world community.

Image: Tourists take pictures at the ancient Palmyra theater in the historical city of Palmyra. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

IS have razed to the ground a number of mosques in Syria and Iraq, many of them dating back to the early years of the Islamic civilization. The terrorists have also destroyed tombs belonging to revered Shia and Sunni figures.

In April, the IS terrorist group released a video showing its members destroying artifacts at Iraq’s northern ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud before blowing up the site.

Image: The sun sets behind ruined columns at the historical city of Palmyra. Photograph: Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

Also in February, the terrorists smashed ancient statues at the Ninawa museum in Mosul, using sledgehammers and drills. 

Before Syria's conflict began in March 2011, more than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year. 

Image: Residents inspect damage near Fakhreddin's Castle (top) at the historical city of Palmyra. Photograph: Reuters

UNESCO's Secretary General Irina Bokova has repeatedly called for an end to hostilities in Palmyra, saying Wednesday that the fighting "is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population."

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