Unesco calls for immediate end to fighting in Syria’s Palmyra

An undated picture shows the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, about 215km north-east of Damascus. Syrian pro-government militia evacuated citizens from the ancient city of Palmyra on Wednesday after large groups of Islamic State militants infiltra
An undated picture shows the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, about 215km north-east of Damascus. Syrian pro-government militia evacuated citizens from the ancient city of Palmyra on Wednesday after large groups of Islamic State militants infiltrated it, state television reported. -- PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (REUTERS, AFP) – The UN agency Unesco called on Wednesday for an immediate halt to fighting at the ancient World Heritage site of Palmyra in Syria, urging the world to do everything it can to protect the population “and safeguard the unique cultural heritage”.

Syrian pro-government militia evacuated citizens from the ancient city of Palmyra on Wednesday after large groups of Islamic State militants infiltrated it, state television reported earlier on Wednesday.

“It is imperative that all parties respect international obligations to protect cultural heritage during conflict, by avoiding direct targeting, as well as use for military purposes,” Unesco director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement.

There are fears that the ultra-radical Islamic State militants will destroy Palmyra’s ancient, pre-Islamic monuments if they gain access to them.

The evacuation by Syria's National Defence Forces follows heavy battles in and around the central city, which is home to a Unesco World Heritage site and is also a strategic military location linked by highways to the cities of Homs and Damascus.

Palmyra’s Unesco-listed heritage site, including ancient temples and colonnaded streets, and its adjacent museum housing priceless artefacts, are in the city’s south-west.

Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters had seized roughly “a third” of Palmyra, the second time they have overrun northern Palmyra.

Syria’s antiquities chief Mamoun Abdulkarim said hundreds of statues and artefacts from Palmyra’s museum had been transferred out of the city but many others – including massive tombs – could not be moved.