Islamic State fighters appear to have reconquered the historic city of Palmyra after days of intense fighting on its outskirts prompted a withdrawal by the Syrian military, The Guardian reports.
“The catastrophe has happened, I am in absolute shock,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, in a phone interview. “I am losing hope, it looks like we have lost the city.”
An ISIS-affiliated news channel claimed victory in the battle on Sunday, saying its soldiers had reclaimed control of the entirety of Palmyra, once a Silk Road oasis that boasted some of the best-preserved ruins of antiquity.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, confirmed the takeover.
It was the second time ISIS has seized Palmyra. In May last year, jihadi militants stormed the city after a week-long siege that ended with the mass retreat of the Syrian military. Militants rampaged through the city’s museums and ruins, blowing up the 2,000-year-old towering Temple of Bel and the Arch of Victory, along with other priceless artefacts, and killed Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s long-serving leading archaeologist.
The group also carried out mass executions in the historic amphitheatre.
The Syrian army, backed by Russian fighter jets, reclaimed the city in March this year in a well-publicized campaign. Moscow organized a musical concert at the amphitheatre shortly afterwards.
The loss of the city will come as a shock, particularly with ISIS in retreat throughout Syria and Iraq with the killing of its top lieutenants and facing increasing pressure in its two largest cities, Mosul and Raqqa.
Abdulkarim said the vast majority of the artefacts that were in Palmyra had already been moved to Damascus for safekeeping, a prescient move that may help preserve something of the city’s heritage, one of the few aspects that unite many Syrians after nearly six years of civil war.
But the remaining buildings in the old city, a Unesco world heritage site, including the amphitheatre and the ancient citadel, remain at risk. There were few people left in the city; under 1,000 by government estimates.