Islamic State seizes ancient town of Palmyra in Syria

Isis Captures a Third of Ancient Syrian City of Palmyra, Reports Suggest


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Syrian state TV acknowledged that pro-government forces have withdrawn from Palmyra.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.


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ISIS takes Palmyra, Syria
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Islamic State seizes ancient town of Palmyra in Syria
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed 'the pearl of the desert'. AFP PHOTO /STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians stand and look out on the street of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 18, 2015, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed 'the pearl of the desert'. AFP PHOTO /STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows the monumental entrance (R), which was reconstructed after 1963 by Syrian Directorate of Antiquities, of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed 'the pearl of the desert'. AFP PHOTO /STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SAMMY KETZ A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syria's fabled desert Greco-Roman oasis of Palmyra saw its last tourist in September 2011, six months after the uprising began. Its most recent visitors are violence and looting. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the castle of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city and killing five people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed 'the pearl of the desert'. AFP PHOTO /STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows carvings on a wall in the courtyard of the sanctury of Baal in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SAMMY KETZ A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows damage caused by shelling on a wall in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syria's fabled desert Greco-Roman oasis of Palmyra saw its last tourist in September 2011, six months after the uprising began. Its most recent visitors are violence and looting. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows Syrian citizens walking in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the theatre at the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
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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

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8,000 flee Ramadi after ISIS takeover - Iraqi forces Anbar
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Islamic State seizes ancient town of Palmyra in Syria
An Iraqi government forces member sits in the back of a vehicle in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to patrol the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces keep position in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces pose for a picture at a checkpoint in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi government forces member keeps position in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces guard the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces keep position in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi government forces walk next to a trench in the Jurf al-Sakher area, some 50 kilometres south of Baghdad, to protect the area from further Islamic State (IS) group advancement, on May 24, 2015. Iraqi forces retook territory from IS group east of Ramadi on May 23, 2015, in their first counterattack since the jihadists' capture of the Anbar provincial capital a week earlier. (Photo credit Haidar Hamdani, AFP/Getty Images)
Displaced Sunni Iraqis, who fled the violence in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad, on April 19, 2015. More than 90,000 people have fled fighting between pro-government forces and the Islamic State jihadist group in the Ramadi area of Iraq's Anbar province, the United Nations said. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi families, who fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, talk to journalists at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
Displaced Sunni Iraqis, who fled the violence in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad, on April 19, 2015. More than 90,000 people have fled fighting between pro-government forces and the Islamic State jihadist group in the Ramadi area of Iraq's Anbar province, the United Nations said. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi boy, whose family fled the city of Ramadi after it was seized by Islamic State (IS) group militants, poses inside a tent at a camp housing displaced families on May 18, 2015 in Bzeibez, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province. Shiite militias converged on Ramadi in a bid to recapture it from jihadists who dealt the Iraqi government a stinging blow by overrunning the city in a deadly three-day blitz. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, cross bridge over Euphrates River to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi security forces stand guard as residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, wait to cross Bzeibez bridge, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. (Photo credit Sabah Arar, AFP/Getty Images)
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, walk towards Bzeibez bridge, on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces. (Photo credit Sabah Arar, AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqis, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, cross bridge over Euphrates River to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi children, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, are carried by trailer after they arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi children, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, are carried by trailer as an Iraqi army soldier passes water them after they arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An Iraqi kid cries as he and thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An Iraqi woman fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, reacts as she arrives in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - APRIL 19: Iraqis, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, carry their belongings with a trailer after they arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqis, fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, cross bridge over Euphrates River to arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 19, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Visam Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - APRIL 17: Iraqi Army members take security measures as thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Thousands of Iraqis fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, arrive in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An Iraqi woman fleeing the Iraqi city of Ramadi seized by Daesh militants, reacts as she arrives in Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015. Thousands of Iraqis have started to migrate from Ramadi city, where the U.S.-led coalition has intensified its airstrikes against Daesh positions, to Baghdad, said a security official. (Photo by Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Residents from the city of Ramadi, who fled their homes on May 16, 2015 as Islamic State (IS) group militants tightened their siege on the last government positions in the capital of Anbar province, a day after they seized the city's government headquarters, walk towards Bzeibez bridge on the southwestern frontier of Baghdad with Anbar province, after IS group jihadists took control of all the other routes connecting the province with the Iraqi capital. Taking control of Ramadi would constitute the group's most important victory this year in Iraq, and would give the jihadists control of the capitals of two of its largest provinces.(Photo credit Sabah Arar, AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi interior ministry's anti-terrorism forces flashes the V-sign as he stands guard on a vehicle outside the Habaniyah military base, near Anbar province's capital Ramadi, on May 8, 2015. More than 1,000 Sunni fighters from Anbar joined Iraq's Popular Mobilisation force on May 8, 2015 as part of government efforts to make the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group a cross-sectarian drive. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteer Shiite fighters who supports the Iraqi government forces in the combat against the Islamic State (IS) group, hold a black Islamist flag allegedly belonging to IS militants in the village of Fadhiliyah, which pro-government forces retook from IS control the previous month, on the road leading to Fallujah, in Iraq's flashpoint Anbar province, southwest of Baghdad, on February 24, 2015. The government forces lost control of parts of Anbar's provincial capital Ramadi and all of Fallujah at the beginning of 2015 to anti-government fighters. (Photo credit Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)
An Islamic State car bomb explodes at the gate of a government building near the provincial governor's compound in Ramadi, Iraq, on Saturday, May 16, 2015, during heavy fighting that saw most of the city fall to the militants. (Stringer/McClatchy DC/TNS via Getty Images)
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