ISIS targets another heritage site in Syria

Extent of damage to ancient Palmyra temple - second hit in a week - not yet known

PALMYRA (Syria) • A powerful blast in the ruins of Syria's ancient Palmyra has raised fears that militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had targeted another of the Middle East's most treasured heritage sites, but experts were unable to enter the area to make a close-up inspection.

Both Syria's antiquities chief and a monitor yesterday reported the Sunday blast at the Unesco World Heritage site, but there was conflicting information on the fate of its Temple of Baal. ISIS destroyed the smaller Baal Shamin temple in Palmyra last week, confirming the worst fears about their intentions for the site, which they seized from Syrian regime forces in May.

Yesterday, Syria's antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said the latest explosion did not appear to have damaged the Temple of Baal significantly. "The frontal columns and the cella (interior) of the temple do not appear to have been damaged," Mr Abdulkarim said. "According to the information we received from the town, the temple is still standing, but antiquities staff are not able to enter the site to see close up," he said.

The militants have carried out a sustained campaign of destruction against heritage sites in areas under their control in Syria and Iraq, and in mid-August beheaded the 82-year-old former antiquities chief in Palmyra.

Meanwhile, Australia yesterday urged more European nations to begin air strikes against ISIS as a way of tackling the escalating refugee crisis gripping the continent.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the militants were responsible for driving hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe and a broadening of the coalition fighting them was necessary.

"Over 40 per cent of the people currently seeking asylum in Europe are from Syria, and we need a united front to defeat the terrorist organisations that are driving the displacement of so many people," she told reporters in Sydney.

"Already there are about 60 countries that are providing support in one way or another to the US-led coalition. But there's more countries can do in terms of supporting the air strikes which are proving effective in stopping Daesh (ISIS) from claiming territory off sovereign governments and from inflicting so much barbaric violence," she said.

In a related development, ISIS has released a gruesome new execution video in which the militants strung up four Iraqi Shi'ite fighters with chains and burned them alive. The victims - identified as fighters in the pro-government Popular Mobilisation forces from southern Iraq - were suspended from a metal structure by chains attached to their hands and feet, then set on fire. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2015, with the headline 'ISIS targets another heritage site in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe