There are growing fears about the fate of Palmyra after "Islamic State" extremists seized control of the ancient city. The Islamists are now thought to control more than half of Syria.
The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned on Thursday that "Islamic State" (IS) extremists now appeared to be in a position to destroy the 2,000-year-old city of Palmyra.
"Palmyra is an extraordinary World Heritage Site in the desert and any destruction to Palmyra is not just a war crime but it will mean an enormous loss for humanity," Irina Bokova, UNESCO's director-general said.
"We are speaking about the birth of human civilization. We are speaking about something that belongs to the whole of humanity," she added, noting that IS militants had already destroyed ancient sites in neighboring Iraq.
Possible war crimes
The European Union, meanwhile, warned that IS fighters appeared to be engaging in activities that could amount to war crimes.
A statement released by the bloc's foreign policy coordinator, Federica Mogherini, said that "mass killings and deliberate destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq amount to a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court."
Palmyra is home to ancient Greco-Roman ruins, which attracted more than 150,000 tourists annually before the Syrian conflict broke out more than four years ago. IS militants sparked international outrage earlier this year when they blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed artifacts in the museum of Mosul, both located in territory that they control in Iraq.
IS 'in control of half of Syria'
According to the London-based and widely quoted Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, IS fighters first took control of Palmyra late Wednesday, and supporters of the militants posted an IS statement on Twitter on Thursday claiming the militants were in full control of the city and its military bases. Later on Thursday, the watchdog said that since seizing the city, IS fighters had executed at least 17 people, "including civilians and loyalist fighters" supporting President Bashar al-Assad.
The Observatory also said that IS fighters were now in control of more than half of Syria's territory.
So far, it appears that the militants have not deliberately destroyed any of the artifacts in Palmyra, but the fighting is reported to have caused tens of thousands of people to try to flee from the city. The Reuters news agency quoted a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights office in Geneva who said that around a third of the city's 200,000 residents may have fled in the past few days.
pfd/msh (Reuters, AP, dpa, AFP)