BEIRUT (AP) -- Islamic State extremists seized almost full control of the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra after government defense lines there collapsed on Wednesday, though it remained unclear how close to the famed archaeological site the extremists advanced, activists said.
Syrian state TV acknowledged that pro-government forces have withdrawn from Palmyra.
The fall of the town to the Islamic State group is a stunning defeat for President Bashar Assad's forces, days after IS militants launched their offensive against Palmyra in central Syria. It is also an enormous loss to the government, not only because of its cultural significance, but because it would open the way for extremists to advance to key government-held areas, including Homs and Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for human rights reported that government forces collapsed in the face of IS attacks and withdrew from the town late on Wednesday. A media collective for Palmyra also said that IS was now in control of most of the town.
It's not immediately clear how close the militants are to the famed ruins, which are just southwest of the town.
The ruins at Palmyra are one of the region's most renowned historic sites and there are fears the extremists would destroy them as they did major archaeological sites in Iraq.
Home to a UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra is famous for its 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades. Before the war, thousands of tourists a year visited the remote desert outpost, also known as the "Bride of the Desert."
"I am terrified," said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's director-general of antiquities and museums. "This is a PR battle for Daesh, and they will insist on scoring victory against civilization by destroying" the ancient ruins, he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
Homs governor Talal Barazzi told The Associated Press earlier that Islamic State militants infiltrated overnight into some districts in the northern part of Palmyra, adding that there were ongoing street battles and snipers in the streets. "The situation is delicate," he said.
Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report from Baghdad.
Related: Citizens flee Ramadi after IS attacks