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Isis advances on Palmyra: Syria urges international community to save 2,000-year-old Unesco world heritage site from destruction

Officials say Isis 'will destroy everything that exists there'

Heather Saul
Friday 15 May 2015 11:21 BST
A Syrian police officer patrols the ancient city of Palmyra
A Syrian police officer patrols the ancient city of Palmyra (Getty Images)

Government troops in Syria are struggling to suppress Isis militants advancing on Palmyra, a Unesco world heritage site containing 2,000 year-old ruins.

Syrian officials are calling on the international community to protect the site from falling into the clutches of fighters, who have already razed ancient sites and ruins in Iraq to the ground.

Palmyra, “an oasis in the Syrian desert”, lies north-east of Damascus and is known for its Roman-era architecture, described by Unesco as a marriage of Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. It was once a tourist hotspot before civil war broke out in Syria and contains a famous colonnaded main street and the temple of Baal.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Isis launched attacks on Tadmur, which is close to Palmyra, on Thursday. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's director-general of antiquities and museums, urged the US-led coalition to expand its air strikes to target Isis fighters approaching the gates of Palmyra.

Isis previously a video showing the destruction of statues in Mosul (Reuters)

He told Reuters that if the terror group does take the city, “it will be a human catastrophe” and warned: "If Daesh [an Arabic acronym for the group] enters the city it will mean destroying the temples, ruins and tombs.”

Isis has launched a determined bid to destroy all aspects of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria that preceded its self-declared 'caliphate' in recent months.

In March, its media arm released videos of militants bulldozing the 3,000-year old Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud, in Iraq, an act condemned by Unesco as a war crime. Militants then continued their path of destruction by demolishing ancient ruins in Hatra and looting valuable artefacts, the sale of which provide a major chunk of the group's funding.

Isis has in the past justified the destruction of statues and figures by condemning them as idolatrous.

"We hope that the experience that Iraq passed through is not repeated," Mr Abdulkarim said. "We need international solidarity to stop these thoughtless methods of the criminal Islamic State [Isis] group.

"This is not Syrian heritage only. It is international.”

Isis believes monuments are un-Islamic

The Director-General of Unesco, Irina Bokova, called on all parties to do everything they can to protect Palmyra from being destroyed. "The site has already suffered four years of conflict, it suffered from looting and represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world,” Ms Bokova said.

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