Palmyra has fallen to the "Islamic State." The capture of the Syrian city is IS's second major victory inside a week, after it seized Ramadi, capital of neighboring Iraq's western Anbar province, on Sunday.
Government forces withdrew from Palmyra Wednesday after reportedly evacuating most civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that the "Islamic State" (IS) had taken full control of the city after resistance by government forces collapsed.
The advance of IS, which continues to replenish its ranks with foreign recruits, raised fears over Palmyra's 2,000-year-old ancient city, Syria's most important monumental complex, a major trading center, and the capital of a short-lived empire between the first and third centuries. IS has repeatedly 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. UNESCO put Palmyra's ancient monuments on its endangered World Heritage list in 2013 - even before IS had emerged as a force in Syria's multifront civil war.
Syrian antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim called on an unlikely coalition of the army, mainstream opposition forces and international community to save the site. "The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved," he said. "This is the entire world's battle."
In northwestern Syria, regime warplanes struck the opposition-held village of Darkoush, killing at least 22 civilians hours after rebels seized the last major government base in Idlib province, the Observatory reported. Local activists said the regime had intensified attacks to try to block further advances by a rebel alliance led by the Nusra Front, a group linked to al Qaeda.
An estimated 220,000 people have died in Syria's civil war since a military crackdown on a series of peaceful protests against the government in 2011. Millions have been displaced, with some seeking to reach Europe in treacherous Mediterranean Sea crossings.
A darker history
Palmyra sits strategically at the junction of highways between Homs and Damascus, the capital, in the west and Deir al-Zour in the east. In 1980, government forces massacred hundreds of Islamist detainees at Syria's most notorious political prison after an assassination attempt against Hafez al-Assad, the president at the time and the father of the country's current autocrat, Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said that government forces had evacuated the current inmates from the still-active prison several days before IS took control of the city. Abdel-Rahman said that, with the capture of Palmyra, IS now controlled about 40 percent of Syria's territory, as well as almost all the country's oil fields.
IS's advances in Syria and Iraq show that the group remains formidable months after the United States started air campaigns in both countries. In Iraq, government troops have dug in in the town of Khaldiya as they try to prevent further advances by IS after the fall of Ramadi.
mkg/bw (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)