BEIRUT // ISIL fighters took control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on Wednesday after fighting off pro-government forces, a UK-based monitor said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the militants had seized almost all of the city in another setback to efforts to repel their advances.
“The situation is very bad,” Syrian antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim said by telephone.
“If only five members of ISIL go into the ancient buildings, they’ll destroy everything,” he added, calling for international action to save the city.
Palmyra’s Unesco world heritage site ruins, including ancient temples and colonnaded streets, are in the city’s southwest.
Hundreds of statues and ancient artefacts from Palmyra’s museum have already been transferred out of the city, Mr Abdulkarim said.
However, many others – including massive tombs – could not be moved.
The UN agency Unesco called on Wednesday for an immediate halt to fighting at the ancient World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria, urging the world to do everything it can to protect the population “and safeguard the unique cultural heritage”.
Syrian pro-government militia evacuated citizens from Palmyra on Wednesday after large groups of ISIL militants infiltrated it, state television reported.
It was the second time ISIL has overrun northern Palmyra, after it seized the same neighbourhoods on Saturday, but could not hold on to them for more than 24 hours.
After fierce clashes on the northern edges of the city, the militant group entered the northern quarter “without their vehicles”.
They seized a state security building and fanned out across northern districts as regime forces fled, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory.
“People are very afraid of what will happen, because ISIL has the capability to get to the heart of Palmyra,” said Khaled Al Homsi, an activist in the city.
He said terrified residents were staying at home and that government forces were “on the defensive”.
Asked if ISIL would be able to reach the city’s ancient ruins, a Syrian military source said “everything is possible in urban warfare”.
He said the extremists had infiltrated northern neighbourhoods and said they were engaged in “street fighting” with regime forces.
Mohammad Hassan Homsi, another activist originally from Palmyra, said that “regime soldiers fled after ISIL took the state security building”.
“They headed to the military intelligence headquarters near the ruins,” he said.
Mr Homsi said ISIL militants from the flashpoint border town of Kobani, where US-led airstrikes helped Kurdish fighters defeat ISIL in January, were among those fighting in Palmyra. ISIL began its offensive on the ancient city on May 13, seizing a nearby town and two gas fields, and leaving more than 350 people dead.
Antiquities officials fear ISIL wants to destroy Palmyra’s pre-Islamic cultural treasures, which include colonnaded streets and ancient citadels.
The city is also strategically located at the crossroads of key highways leading west to Damascus and Homs, and east to Iraq.
According to the Observatory and Syria’s state television, a teacher was killed and at least 20 students wounded on Wednesday when mortar rounds landed on their school in Damascus.
In Idlib, a regime air raid on the opposition-controlled village of Darkush killed at least 22 civilians on Tuesday, the Observatory said.
Darkush lies on the Syrian-Turkish border, just 50 kilometres northwest of Ariha and is one of the last remaining regime bastions in Idlib province.
Also on Tuesday, a rebel coalition which includes Al Qaeda’s Syria branch, Jabhat Al Nusra, seized control of the Al Mastumah camp. It was the largest military base in Idlib.
Syria’s conflict has left more than 220,000 people dead.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse