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"We have to act": World appalled as Isis seizes full control of important heritage site

Before Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 – more than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year.

Updated 8.30pm

shutterstock_204539617 Palmyra Shutterstock / Waj Shutterstock / Waj / Waj

ISLAMIC STATE JIHADISTS have seized full control of the ancient Syrian city of – putting the world heritage site and its priceless artefacts at risk of destruction.

The ransacking of Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old former stopping point for caravans on the Silk Road, would be “an enormous loss to humanity,” Unesco head Irina Bokova warned.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS now controlled half of all territory in the war-torn country.

The jihadists executed 17 people in Palmyra, including civilians, they accused of “working with the regime,” it said.

The capture of Palmyra is the latest blow to efforts to hold back the advancing jihadists, following the fall of Iraq’s Ramadi.

“IS fighters are in all parts of Tadmur, including near the archeological site,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, using the Arabic name for the city.

Syrian state media said loyalist troops withdrew after “a large number of IS terrorists entered the city”.

“We have to act”

French President Francois Hollande said the world must respond the seizure of Palmyra.

“We have to act because there is a threat against these monuments which are part of humankind’s inheritance and at the same time we must act against Daesh [ISIS],” Hollande said.

“It is really upsetting when a site of such riches which belongs to all of humanity falls into the hands of a terrorist group,” he added, as he arrived at an EU-Eastern Partnership summit in the Latvian capital Riga.

Capture of the entire city

In an online statement, IS proclaimed its capture of the entire city, which is strategically located at the crossroads of key highways leading west to Damascus and Homs, and east to Iraq.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground, said some residents had headed to the city of Homs but others stayed home, while state media said most of Palmyra’s civilians had been evacuated.

IS also seized Palmyra’s prison, notorious for the killings of hundreds of regime prisoners in the 1980s and seen as a symbol of oppression during the reign of President Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad.

shutterstock_251753563 Shutterstock / Waj Shutterstock / Waj / Waj

‘Birthplace of civilisation’ 

The jihadists, notorious for demolishing archaeological treasures since declaring a “caliphate” last year straddling Iraq and Syria, fought their way into Palmyra on foot after breaking through in the city’s north.

Known in Syria as “the pearl of the desert,” Palmyra is home to colonnaded alleys, elaborately decorated tombs, and ancient Greco-Roman ruins.

“At the end of the day, it’s the birthplace of human civilisation. It belongs to the whole of humanity and I think everyone today should be worried about what is happening,” Bokova said.

shutterstock_167288657 Shutterstock / Waj Shutterstock / Waj / Waj

Before Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, more than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year

“Palmyra was the number one destination in Syria for all international tour operators,” said Maha Qandalaft at Syrian travel agency Adonis.

The pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said Palmyra’s capture “shames the international community, which crossed its arms as IS infiltrated the most celebrated historical city in the world”.

 - © AFP 2015

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