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A Syrian army soldier fires artillery shells toward ISIL positions in northeastern Palmyra on May 17, 2015
AFP / Getty Images
ISIL fighters capture Syrian city of Palmyra, site of famed ruins
Fall of ancient city, also known as Tadmur, opens way for armed group to advance toward key government-held areas
May 21, 20156:36AM ET
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have taken full control of the Syrian city of Palmyra including its celebrated archaeological site, according to activists and a monitoring group.
In the face of a Syrian army collapse, ISIL advanced into the strategically important city, also known as Tadmur, on Wednesday and has since consolidated its grip, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The group now controls more than half of Syria’s territory, according to observers monitoring ISIL’s march toward the more densely populated west of the country. The development also comes as fighters from ISIL make gains in Iraq, capturing the city of Ramadi from government control.
Palmyra, in central Homs province, lies 130 miles northeast of Damascus in the desert that stretches to the Iraqi frontier to the east.
Ruins in the city are deemed to be one of the world's most renowned historical sites and there were fears ISIL will now destroy them as they did major archaeological sites in Iraq. The UNESCO world heritage site is famous for its 2,000-year-old towering Roman colonnades and other ruins and priceless artifacts. Before the war, thousands of tourists a year visited the remote desert outpost, a cherished landmark referred to by Syrians as the "Bride of the Desert."
Mamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's antiquities chief, has called on the Syrian army, opposition and the international community to save Palmyra.
Hundreds of statues and ancient artifacts from Palmyra's museum have already been transferred out of the city, according to Abdulkarim.
The fall of the city potentially opens the way for ISIL to advance toward key government-held areas, including the capital.
Deadly clashes raged overnight between the Syrian government and ISIL, with troops firing rockets from outside Palmyra in an attempt to block ISIL's offensive.
ISIL launched an attack on Palmyra last week, causing material damage to residential areas while clashes left many dead and injured.
They managed to capture two gas fields, leaving hundreds dead.
Abo Muaz, an activist in Palmyra, confirmed to Al Jazeera that ISIL had taken the entire city.
“The Syrian army has retreated, ISIL are infested in almost all of the city. The army began its retreat almost two hours ago,” he said. “We do not hear any clashes taking place, either.
“A large number of families are currently fleeing from several parts of Palmyra. Clashes have been taking place and regime warplanes have not stopped bombing the city.”