Islamic State fighters tightened their grip on the historic city of Palmyra in Syria, days after capturing a provincial capital in neighbouring Iraq, hinting at the momentum of the group, which a monitor says holds half of Syrian territory.
The twin successes pile pressure not just on Damascus and Baghdad, but also throw doubt on US strategy to rely almost exclusively on air strikes to defeat Islamic State.
Extending its reach in the region, fighters loyal to the Sunni Muslim group have also consolidated their grip on the Libyan city of Sirte, hometown of former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
IS said in a statement posted by followers on Twitter that it was in full charge of Palmyra, including its military bases, marking the first time it had taken a city directly from the Syrian military and allied forces.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the al-Qaida offshoot now controls more than half of Syrian territory following more than four years of conflict which grew out of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The ultra hardline group has destroyed antiquities and monuments in Iraq and there are fears it might now devastate Palmyra, home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades, and a theatre.
The UN cultural agency Unesco describes the site as a historical crossroads between the Roman Empire, India, China and ancient Persia and a testament to the world’s diverse heritage.
“We may have different beliefs... different views, but we have to protect such incredible vestiges of human history,” said Unesco director general Irina Bokova.
The Observatory’s founder Rami Abdulrahman said Islamic State fighters had entered the historical sites by early yesterday but there were no immediate reports of destruction.
“This is the fall of a civilisation,” Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told Reuters. “Human, civilised society has lost the battle against barbarism.”
Al-Azhar, the centre of Islamic learning in Egypt, called on the world to protect Palmyra, saying the destruction or looting of cultural heritage was religiously forbidden.
Clashes in the Palmyra area since Wednesday killed at least 100 pro-government fighters, said Abdulrahman, who bases his information on a network of sources on the ground.
The EU’s foreign policy chief expressed fears that thousands of people in Palmyra were at risk as well as the cultural sites.
“Mass killings and deliberate destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq amount to a war crime,” said Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
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