Damascus (AsiaNews / Agencies) - The Islamic State militias (IS) now control the "totality" of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a Unesco world heritage site and among the most important archaeological sites in the Middle East, according to the London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
With the passing of hours, fears are mounting that the jihadists could destroy ancient ruins, as has happened in recent months in Iraq during the conquest of Hatra and Nimrud. Images of the fighters destroying these pre-Islamic sites with hammers and bulldozers because deemed "symbols of paganism" made global headlines.
Local sources say that the government soldiers, loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, have almost completely withdrawn from the area after the IS advance,. The militants now control half of Syria. Earlier activist groups confirmed that the fighters have taken over the whole area north of Tadmur, the modern city which is next to the ruins of Palmyra.
The Syrian state TV reports a mass evacuation of citizens, while heavy fighting continues between the two sides. Omar Hamza, an activist in Palmyra, told the BBC that the area has been subject to "heavy shelling" by the IS and government soldiers. "There are still violent clashes - he adds - in the east of the city."
Most of the archaeological site and the artifacts are in the south, in the area of land that separates the city from the countryside and which for some time has been in the hands of the militias of the Islamic state. Hundreds of statues have been removed and placed in a safe place. However, other architectural monuments and part of the ruins cannot be transferred and are likely to be demolished by jihadists.
Activists, archaeologists and historians, among them the head of the ancient monuments and ruins in Syria Maamoun Abdul Karim, are calling for the intervention of the coalition led by the United States, to repel the advancing militias and safeguard the site.
Unesco experts confirm that Palmyra, dubbed the "Venice of sand", is one of the most important cultural centers of antiquity. At the time of the Roman Empire it was an important center of distribution of goods, with the desert instead of the sea and camels instead of ships. To date, only a small part of the site has been brought to the surface, many of the exhibits and objects are only partially emerge from the sand or are still covered.
In an official statement UNESCO Director General of Irina Bokova expressed "deep concern" about the situation, adding that "fighting is threatening one of the most significant sites of the Middle East, as well as the local civilian population."
Added to this is the strategic location of Palmyra (and Tadmur), along a route linking the capital Damascus with eastern cities, including Deir al-Zour famous for its underground gas fields. If the Islamic state take the region, experts warn, it will be one of its most important strategic and military victories, with far worse consequences than the destruction of the ruins of a World Heritage Site.