Isis destroys Palmyra shrine as group vows to 'remove polytheism'

Isis has destroyed the tomb of Sheikh Mohammed Ali near Palmyra after announcing it would begin "removing the landmarks of polytheism" in the area, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

Photos of the shrine being destroyed were circulated online in a report called 'The Elimination of Polytheist Landmarks' released by Isis's media arm Wilayat Homs. The photos also show a second, unidentified shrine being destroyed by the terror group.

The photos depict Isis militants transporting explosive material to the site of the religious figure's tomb, which sits atop the Mohammed Ali mountain, north of Palmyra. The city, captured by the group last month, is a Unesco World Heritage Site which the UN describes as a site of "outstanding universal value" due to its 1st and 2nd Century temples.

Rami Abdel Rahman, founder and director of SOHR, confirmed the detonation of the Mohammed Ali shrine to Newsweek and said that it was a popular tourism spot for Muslims around the world.

"It is important because for a long time the people have gone to visit this shrine," he said. "Muslims visit this area and Mohammed Ali mountain."

Rahman believes that the destruction of the shrines in Palmyra will continue, but indicates that the group might be feeling under pressure due to the advance of soldiers loyal to the Assad-regime.

"I think that Isis know that the regime are too close to this historic city and they will bombard this area," he concluded.

Activist Batoul al-Homsi also confirmed to London-based Al-Araby that Isis militants blew up two shrines in response to the reinforcement of the Syrian regime forces near the city. The source said that the group "rigged the archeological city [with explosives], after regime forces summoned reinforcements to bolster their positions near Palmyra".

The move by Isis to destroy these shrines come after the group's militants reportedly planted mines and explosives in and around the city of Palmyra's ancient ruins in an attempt to defend against a counter-offensive by Syrian regime forces, who were originally ousted by the group when it was captured. The group has captured a military airbase in the city and an infamous regime prison.

Rahman confirmed last week that the Syrian regime has started conducting air strikes on Palmyra, killing 11 people, in an attempt to force the terror group into retreat from the city.

The ancient town hosts approximately 50,000 residents and has remained under government control since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The town was designated a Unesco heritage site in 1980.

This is not the first time that the group has destroyed religious Middle Eastern landmarks. The terror group have caused controversy by bulldozing the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud in their campaign to destroy cultural sites in the Nineveh province.

The UN's cultural agency described the destruction of Nimrud as a "war crime". They have also threatened key heritage sites along the Libyan coast, such as Sabratha, Leptis Magna and Cyrene, where their influence is growing.

The Syrian director of antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, was not immediately available for comment.