After fierce clashes with government troops, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control over the ancient town of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday, a group monitoring the war said. The takeover renews fears that the ISIL will destroy priceless archaeological sites if it reaches the ruins.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIL had seized almost all of the city.
Hundreds of statues have been moved to safe locations, said the country's antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim. He told Reuters that "small groups" of fighters had entered the city. He called on the Syrian army, opposition fighters and the international community to save the site.
Palmyra is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous for its 2,000-year-old majestic Roman colonnades.
The majority of the ruins are in Palmyra's south. ISIL fighters entered Wednesday from the north after seizing the state security building from government forces. But their presence has sparked concerns they will destroy the ruins as they have done with major archaeological sites in neighboring Iraq.
"Hundreds and hundreds of statues we were worried would be smashed and sold are all now in safe places," Abdulkarim said. "The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved. This is the entire world's battle."
After setbacks in Syria and Iraq, ISIL appears to be getting a second wind in recent days, capturing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, Iraq's largest Sunni province, and advancing to Palmyra.
Thousands of people fleeing Ramadi and the violence in Anbar in western Iraq poured into Baghdad Wednesday after the central government waived restrictions and granted them conditional entry, a provincial official said.
The Shia-led government in Baghdad is struggling to come up with a plan to reverse the stunning loss of Ramadi, pledging a counteroffensive and relying on Iranian-backed Shia militiamen to join the battle.
Athal al-Fahdawi, an Anbar councilman, said Ramadi civilians who were stranded on open land for days are now being allowed to cross a bridge spanning the Euphrates River and enter Baghdad province.