ISIS militants stormed the Syrian city of Palmyra Wednesday, seizing it from government forces in fierce fighting as Syria’s antiquities chief called on the world to save its ancient monuments.
Syrian state television said late Wednesday that the jihadis were entering the famous antiquities area to the southwest of the modern city of Tadmur.
The capture of Palmyra is the first time the Al-Qaeda offshoot has taken control of a city directly from the Syrian army and allied forces, which have already lost ground in the northwest and south to other insurgent groups in recent weeks.
The central city is built alongside the remains of an oasis civilization whose colonnaded streets, temple and theater have stood for nearly 2,000 years.
It is home to modern military installations, and sits on a desert highway linking the capital Damascus with Syria’s eastern provinces, which are mostly under the control of the jihadi group, or Kurdish militia and their allies.
“Praise God, [Palmyra] has been liberated,” an ISIS fighter said, speaking by Internet from the area. He said ISIS was in control of a hospital in the city which Syrian forces had used as a base before withdrawing.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIS had seized almost all of the city, while anti-regime activist groups inside the country said government forces withdrew in the direction of Damascus, or to military and security facilities just outside Palmyra.
Syrian state television said the pro-regime National Defense paramilitary forces “evacuated civilians” after large groups of ISIS fighters entered the city from the north.
Syria’s antiquities chief Mamoun Abdul-Karim told Reuters that hundreds of statues had been moved to safe locations while calling on the Syrian army, opposition and international community to save the site.
“The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved,” he said. “This is the entire world’s battle.”
The attack is part of a westward advance by ISIS that is adding to the pressures on the overstretched military and allied militia.
UNESCO called for an immediate halt to the fighting and called for international efforts to protect the population “and safeguard the unique cultural heritage.”
Anti-regime activist groups and media outlets said Syrian warplanes began to target the city with airstrikes immediately after the troops’ withdrawal.
The Syrian military said an air force strike in the area had killed and wounded “dozens of terrorists” and destroyed five vehicles.
ISIS has destroyed antiquities and ancient monuments in Iraq and is being targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes in both countries. The U.S.-led coalition, however, has not targeted the Palmyra region during the offensive by ISIS that began over the weekend.
Palmyra’s ancient monuments, which lie on the southwestern fringe of the modern city, were put on UNESCO’s World Heritage in danger list in 2013. The ruins were part of a desert oasis that was one of the most significant cultural centers of the ancient world.
ISIS supporters posted pictures on social media showing what they said were gunmen in the streets of Palmyra, which is the location of one of Syria’s biggest weapons depots as well as army bases, an airport and a major prison.
However, in Syria’s northeast, Kurdish forces backed by U.S.-led airstrikes pressed an attack on ISIS that has killed at least 170 members of the group this week, a Kurdish official and the Observatory said. The Observatory and anti-regime media outlets have reported significant gains of territory by Kurdish militia and their allies against ISIS in recent days in several north and northeastern parts of Syria.
And in the northwest, the Observatory said that an air raid by U.S.-led forces killed at least 15 members of the Nusra Front in the village of Tawameh in western Aleppo province.
Most of the fighters killed were Turkish, it said, and there were several also wounded. It was not immediately clear how senior they were.
A second, similar incident was also reported in next-door Idlib province. Anti-regime activists said that an explosion targeted an area near the town of Kafranbel, famous for being a center of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
However, some accounts said that aircraft belonging to both the Syrian army and the international coalition were in the skies at the time of the explosion. U.S.-led forces have overwhelmingly targeted ISIS in Syria since mid-2014, but the airstrikes have also killed a smaller number of Nusra Front members.