Isis 'seizes third' of ancient Syrian city of Palmyra

Isis militants have captured a third of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria after intense clashes with Syrian regime forces, a prominent Syrian monitoring group has confirmed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) announced the development today, revealing that the radical Islamists had seized the state security building near the ancient ruins.

"Isis fighters seized the northern parts of the city, which amount to a third of Palmyra," head of SOHR told AFP news agency. "Regime forces fled from these neighbourhoods."

However, Syrian state television denied that Isis had captured areas in the city's north, saying "armed forces targeted IS [Isis] terrorist groups north of Palmyra, and blocked their infiltration of the northern parts of the city".

The claims made by the Syrian regime were countered by a Syrian activist, named only as Mohammad, who told AFP: "Regime soldiers fled after IS [Isis] took the state security building [in the city's north]. They headed to the military intelligence headquarters."

Palmyra, listed as a World Heritage site by Unesco, has witnessed continuous fighting between Syrian regime troops and the Islamic fundamentalists since last week. Isis managed to seize a number of Palmyra's northern areas but were forced out by troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Isis militants are now reportedly less than a mile from the main ruins in the city, according to Syrian director of antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim.

"These groups are just 300m to 500m from the site and they're trying to enter each area," he told the International Business Times UK. "It's like the battle for Kobane: we appeal the international community to intervene."

Last week, he warned that the ancient city would face the same fate as the ancient Iraqi cities of Nimrud and Hatra which were destroyed earlier this year.

"If Isis enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction," Abdulkarim said. "If the ancient city falls, it will be an international catastrophe."

"It will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul."

On its website, Unesco refers to Palmyra as a site of "outstanding universal value" with temples from the 1st and 2nd Century.

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.

London Mayor Boris Johnson led the international outcry to protect the ancient site last week, warning that world heritage is "under threat" with the group threatening to "raze civilisation" if not stopped. He called for a potential "exclusion zone" around the site or "at least air strikes".

While many believe that the group attacks or loot antiquities for mere shock value or financial gain, Isis holds an intolerance towards items that are deemed jahili (pre-Islamic) and antiquities that depict humans, such as Roman statues or mosaics, Dr Hafed Walda, the pending deputy ambassador to the permanent Libyan delegation at Unesco, told Newsweek earlier this year.