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Isis in Syria: Militants carry out threat to destroy Unesco-protected historical sites as they are forced to retreat from Palmyra

v2-pg-22-isis-looting-1-gettyDestruction seen as message to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces that the rest of the site will be destroyed if the Syrian army advances are not checked

Isis has begun carrying out its threat to destroy structures in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, blowing up at least two monuments at the Unesco-protected site as Syrian government troops made advances on the Islamist’s positions.

Photographs published by the group showed the bombing of a tomb about 2.5 miles north of the centre of Palmyra, and of another shrine, which lies just outside the main Unesco site.

It is believed that mines have been planted around other, better-known monuments, including the Roman-era amphitheatre above which Isis’s black flag has been raised, ready for detonation at any time.

Fears were raised for the ancient site, parts of which date back 4,000 years, after Isis captured it last month, following its destruction of other ancient sites and monuments across Iraq and Syria.

Dedicated to a radical interpretation of Islam, Isis believes that nothing should pre-date the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, which according to the Gregorian calendar widely used in the West, is around 570 AD. “They consider these Islamic mausoleums to be against their beliefs, and they ban all visits to these sites,” Syria’s antiquities director Maamoun Abulkarim said. The threat to sites in Palmyra came as Syrian government forces made advances on the town.

It seems likely that the destruction was sent as a sign to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces that the rest of the site will be destroyed if the Syrian army advances are not checked. Some reports had Syrian forces just five miles from the Isis front-line position in the village of Al-Amariyah.

“It is not known if the purpose is to blow up the ruins or to prevent regime forces from advancing into the town,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the director the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told the Al-Jazeera network. “It seems clear that the Syrian regime has increased its air strikes and wants to push [Isis] out.”

The destruction at Palmyra came as it emerged that one of Isis’s leading figures, the Tunisian, Ali Awni al-Harzi, has been killed in a US air strike in the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. As well as being a leading Isis militant, al-Harzi was identified by the US as being a key architect of the attack on the US compound in the Libyan city of Benghazi on 11 September 2012 when Washington’s envoy, Christopher Stevens, was killed.

Al-Harzi “operated closely with multiple [Isis]-associated extremists throughout North Africa and the Middle East”, US Defence Department spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren said in a statement. “His death degrades [Isis’s] ability to integrate North African jihadists into the Syrian and Iraqi fight and removes a jihadist with long ties to international terrorism.”



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