Islamic State militants have seized parts of the ancient town of Palmyra in central Syria, renewing fears the extremist group will destroy the priceless archaeological site if it reaches the ruins.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the militants had gained control of as much as a third of the town after fierce clashes with government troops.
Palmyra is home to a Unesco world heritage site and is famous for its 2,000-year-old majestic Roman colonnades.
The majority of the ruins are located in Palmyra’s south, and the militants yesterday entered the town from the north after seizing the state security building from government forces. But their presence has sparked concerns they would destroy the ruins as they have done with major archaeological sites in Iraq.
Following setbacks in both Syria and Iraq, IS fighters appear to have got a second wind in recent days, capturing Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s largest Sunni province, and advancing in central Syria.
In Iraq, thousands of displaced people fleeing from Ramadi and the violence in the western Anbar province have poured into Baghdad after the central government waived restrictions and granted them conditional entry.
The exodus is the latest in the aftermath of the fall of the city of Ramadi – the Anbar provincial capital – to IS over the weekend. The Shia-led government in Baghdad is struggling to come up with a plan to reverse the stunning loss of the city, pledging a counter-offensive and relying on Iranian-backed Shia militiamen to join the battle for Ramadi.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 40,000 people have been displaced from Anbar province since Friday.
Meanwhile, residents still left in Ramadi said IS militants were urging them over loudspeakers not to be afraid and to stay in the city, already suffering from acute shortages of food and medicines. However, IS fighters were not preventing those wanting to leave the city to go, the residents said.