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article imageAncient ruins in western Syria at risk with Islamic State capture

By Nathan Salant     May 25, 2015 in World
Palmyra - Thursday's apparent capture of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra by Islamic State militants imperils one of the world's oldest and greatest examples of Roman architecture.
Hundreds of people were reported killed Thursday in sporadic fighting and in executions carried out by the marauding militants, who have violently conquered large portions of Syria and neighboring Iraq in an effort to establish an Islamic caliphate.
On Thursday and Friday, after entering the historic city, militants reportedly went room-by-room through government buildings to find employees of the Syrian government and kill them, according to the Reuters news service.
"The Syrian regime appears to be in terminal decline, and the Islamic State group in its timing is capitalizing on recent losses by government forces in the north and south," antiquities expert Amr Al-Azm, a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, told Reuters.
The capture of Palmyra and the nearby modern city of Tadmur, coming less than a week after the fall of Ramadi, a provincial capital, reflects the regime's deteriorating situation after four years of civil war.
The Islamic State group now holds more territory than the government and rebel groups, many pro-Western, combined, Reuters said, and more than half of Syria's oilfields.
But the capture of the ancient archaeological site also could be devastating to Syria's national identity, since the militants have previously destroyed historical relics at other locations in Syria and Iraq.
The world heritage site is famous for its thousands of Roman-era ruins, including temples, colonnaded streets and a 2,000-year-old amphitheater.
"We are in a state of anticipation and fear," Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Antiquities and Museum Department in Damascus, told Reuters.
"The city is now totally controlled by gunmen and its destiny is dark and dim," he said.
The ruins of Palmyra, home of Queen Zenobia, who led a third-century rebellion that reconquered large portions of Roman-held territory stretching to Africa, was Syria's biggest tourist attraction.
Capture of the strategic city also could give Islamic militants a new avenue to threaten Damascus, Syria's capital and the seat of power of its ruler, Bashar al-Assad.
"I am extremely worried about what happens in Palmyra," Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, told Reuters.
"Palmyra is an extraordinary world heritage site in the desert and any destruction to Palmyra is not just a war crime, but ... an enormous loss to humanity," she said.
In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama's chief spokesman, Josh Earnest, acknowledged that a U.S.-led bombing campaign to hold back Islamic State attackers had not been as effective as hoped but said it was making progress overall.
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