IS threat moves closer to Palmyra

The UN cultural agency’s chief said she is alarmed by developments in Syria, where clashes with IS militants are getting closer to the ancient city of Palmyra — one of the Middle East’s most famous Unesco world heritage sites.

Irina Bokova said Palmyra, famous for its 2,000-year-old ruins, should not become the target of any military activity. She spoke to reporters in Beirut after meeting Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam.

Activist groups such as the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Co-ordination Committees said that Syrian government warplanes have been attacking positions of the IS group on the edge of Palmyra. There has also been fighting on the ground, the groups said.

Syrian state news agency Sana said troops were “chasing” IS fighters in several areas north and east of Palmyra. Bokova said the news surrounding Palmyra was very alarming.

“Our position is very clear that heritage sites should not be used for military purposes. I appealed yesterday to all parties concerned to protect Palmyra and to leave it outside their military activity,” Bokova said.

Her remarks came a day after Damascus urged the international community to protect Palmyra from IS, which recently destroyed several archaeological sites in neighbouring Iraq.

“The site has already suffered four years of conflict,” Bokova said in an earlier statement, adding that it “represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world”.

Palmyra is known for its Roman-era ruins, which once attracted thousands of tourists, who came to see its towering colonnades and a temple to the god Baal. Since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, looters have stolen artefacts from museums and damaged Palmyra’s ruins.

However, the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, accused Syrian president Bashar Assad’s government of indifference over Palmyra, saying Damascus wouldn’t mind a “cultural catastrophe that the Islamic State could carry out in the city” because such an event would divert attention from its own wrongdoings.

Assad’s forces have recently suffered a string of setbacks recently mostly in the north-western province of Idlib and Daraa region south of the country.

Meanwhile, IS militants raised their black flag over the local government compound in the Iraqi city of Ramadi after over-running most of the western provincial capital.

The insurgents attacked Ramadi overnight using six suicide car bombs to reach the city centre, where the Anbar governorate compound is located, police sources said.

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