Islamists tighten grip on Palmyra

BAGHDAD — Islamic State militants tightened their hold on the Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday, leaving decapitated bodies of suspected opponents in the streets as announcements from mosque loudspeakers urged residents to turn in government soldiers.

The militants’ capture of Palmyra has raised concerns about the fate of the ancient ruins in the city, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 130 miles northeast of the Syrian capital. Activists also have warned that a large civilian population remains in Palmyra, despite government claims that its fighters secured the residents’ exit before retreating.

The militants’ advance came less than a week after the Islamic State seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi, undermining U.S. assertions that the group is largely on the defensive after months of airstrikes by an international coalition. The group continued to gain ground east of Ramadi on Thursday.

Palmyra’s fall also marks the first time that Islamic State forces have seized a major population center directly from the Syrian government. Previous advances came against rebel groups.

In a statement released on affiliated social media sites Thursday, the Islamic State said it had taken complete control of the city, including its notorious prison and military airport. Pro-government forces “collapsed and fled,” it said.

A day after Palmyra fell, mosques announced Thursday morning that families hiding regime soldiers should turn them over to Islamic State authorities, activists said.

As militants searched door to door, grisly images showing beheaded bodies on the city’s streets circulated on social media. The dead were said to be members of the Shaitat tribe. The tribe paid a heavy price for rising up against the Islamic State last year; as many as 700 members were massacred in a failed revolt.

Activists estimate that more than 100,000 civilians may still be in the city, whose population had swelled because of an influx of internally displaced people from other parts of Syria.

The Islamic State’s latest gains give the al-Qaida offshoot, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL, control of a key route to the capital, Damascus, while cutting supply lines to beleaguered Syrian forces farther east in Deir al-Zour province. The advances also consolidate the group’s control along the border with Iraq, where its fighters on Thursday seized the only crossing point they did not control after government forces pulled out of al-Tanf, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

There were no immediate reports of damage to Palmyra’s famed archaeological site, including the remains of temples and artifacts that trace the area’s rich legacy as a commercial and political crossroads dating back more than 2,000 years.

But the Islamic State, ostensibly acting in the name of religious purity, has destroyed pre-Islamic treasures in northern Iraq that it deemed blasphemous, including other UNESCO heritage sites such as Hatra and Nimrud.

For the moment, the group is more focused on rooting out government fighters and collaborators in Palmyra, as well as securing the city militarily, activists said.

It was more than a month after the capture of Mosul in June 2014 that Islamic State militants destroyed the city’s ancient tomb of Jonah, and the media-conscious group is likely to carefully weigh when it can best benefit from publicity before destroying Palmyra’s historic sites.

Experts have warned that smaller items that can be looted and smuggled are likely to be sold off by the group.

“At risk are the magnificent structures visible above ground and also the untold numbers of invaluable artifacts that lie unexcavated beneath the surface, ripe for plucking by plunderers who would sell them to fund ISIS operations,” said Carol Meyers, a professor emeritus of religion at Duke University.

As of Thursday, Palmyra’s archaeological site had not been damaged, according to activists. Islamic State militants “just don’t have time for it now,” said a Syrian activist in close contact with sources in the city. “They are more into the prison and the stocks of the missiles and other military facilities.”

In addition to the rich cultural heritage, Palmyra’s environs are rich in gas and oil, potentially boosting the Islamic State’s wealth.

The Islamic State-linked Amaq news agency claimed Thursday that about 75 percent of Syria’s electric and gas resources are now in the group’s hands. The gains in the vicinity of Palmyra included the seizure of an oil pumping station that supplies the country’s main port in Tartus. Amaq claimed that more than 40 Syrian soldiers were killed at the pumping station.

Palmyra’s loss is expected to increase pressure on President Bashar Assad, whose forces have been losing ground to other armed groups fighting to overthrow him. Syrian state television carried little coverage of the fall of Palmyra. The official Syrian Arab News Agency accused Western nations of “standing still” and doing nothing to protect the city.

Talk to us

More in Local News

A resident reported finding a dead Asian giant hornet near Marysville on June 4. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Dead ‘murder hornet’ found in Marysville, a first for county

It could be from a previous season, scientists say, because males don’t typically emerge this early.

Jeff Thoreson does a cheer with his second grade class before the start of their kickball game on his last in-person day of school on Thursday, June 17, 2021 in Snohomish, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Snohomish teacher hit the right notes in memorable career

Jeff Thoreson will retire this month after molding minds at Riverview Elementary School for 41 years.

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2020, file photo, Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder, left, receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine given at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, south of Seattle. Nurse Jose Picart, right, administered the shot. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, June 17, 2021, announced a new COVID-19 vaccine incentive lottery for the state's military, family members and veterans because the federal government wasn't sharing individual vaccine status of those groups with the state and there were concerns they would be left out of a previously announced lottery. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
New vaccine lottery announced for military in Washington

Gov. Inslee said there were concerns they would be left out of a previously announced lottery.

Police: After short chase in Marysville, man dies by suicide

Officers responded to a domestic violence call. The suspect reportedly shot himself at the end of a chase.

The Everett Police Department has asked the City Council to keep its nine Stay Out of Drug Areas, zones where people arrested for drug crimes are not allowed. (City of Everett)
Everett police ask council to renew 9 drug enforcement areas

SODAs are a legal tool that prohibits people arrested for drug crimes from entering certain areas.

Sequoia High graduates move their tassels from one side to the other at the end of the graduation ceremony on Thursday, June 17, 2021 in Everett, Washington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Gallery: Sequoia High Graduation

Sequoia High School graduates receive their diplomas

Woman killed in hit-and-run south of Everett is identified

Detectives have been searching for the vehicle that struck Katherine Mueller, 31, of Snohomish.

Pallet communities are groups of tiny homes for unhoused people. Here, a worker installs weatherstripping on a pallet shelter at Pallet in Everett in January 2020. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)
Tiny home community is proposed at a Marysville church

The Pallet shelter community would provide transitional housing to eight people. Neighbors have questions.

In Edmonds, ‘small cell’ deployment permit becomes a big deal

The City Council has allowed new cellular equipment under an ordinance that regulates conditions.

Most Read