With the "Islamic State" having taken control of Palmyra, concern has grown over the city's historical treasures. Government forces withdrew Wednesday after reportedly evacuating most civilians.
Concern has grown over the archaeological treasures of Palmyra, home to 2,000-year-old temples, colonnaded streets and a museum housing priceless artifacts. UNESCO put Palmyra's ancient monuments on its endangered World Heritage list in 2013 - even before the "Islamic State (IS) had emerged as a force in Syria's multifront civil war. IS has destroyed and looted artifacts at ancient sites that have fallen under its control in Iraq, calling idols haram, or forbidden under the group's version of Islamic law.
"If only five members of IS go into the ancient buildings, they'll destroy everything," Mamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's antiquities chief, said Wednesday. "This is the entire world's battle," he added.
Abdulkarim called on the army, opposition and international community for help. He said officials transferred statues and artifacts out of the city, but could not move other relics - including massive tombs.
Earlier this year, IS, which draws many fighters from abroad, blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed artifacts in Mosul, both in Iraq. Syrian antiquities expert and opposition figure Amr Al-Azm noted the irony of anti-regime activists having to call on the US-led coalition to support government forces in the city against IS.
"We are trapped in a sickening paradox where to save the world heritage site of Palmyra we are forced to call on the international community and the coalition to attack ISIS forces in support of the Syrian regime, which is defending the city," he wrote on Facebook, using the group's former name.
Palmyra - at the junction of desert highways between Homs and Syria's capital, Damascus, in the west and Deir al-Zour in the east - became the first city that IS has taken directly from regime forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that the group controls about 40 percent of the country, including almost all of its oil fields. Regime warplanes responded by carrying out air strikes on IS positions in the city.
The assault comes after IS took Ramadi, Iraq, in three days of fighting that killed 500 people and displaced 40,000. On Wednesday, France pledged to host high-level international talks next month in Paris over the threat posed by IS.
At least 220,000 people have died since died in Syria's civil war since it began in 2011. Millions have been displaced, with some risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe.
mkg/bw (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)