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UNESCO has warned that the destruction of Syria's ancient city of Palmyra would be "an enormous loss to humanity," after fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized the desert oasis, one of the Middle East's most famous heritage sites.

Irina Bokova, the head of the UN's cultural body UNESCO, called the ancient metropolis "the birthplace of human civilisation", adding: "It belongs to the whole of humanity and I think everyone today should be worried about what is happening."

Nicknamed "the pearl of the desert", UNESCO has described Palmyra, known as Tadmur in Arabic, as a heritage site of "outstanding universal value".


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Concern has also been raised over the civilian population trapped in the city as regime forces bombarded ISIL positions.

Nasser, a journalist in Palmyra, told Al Jazeera that residents in the city could not leave and government forces offered no way out.

"There are almost 170,000 people here, including 50,000 internally displaced people from Homs and Der Ezzor," he said.

He added that hospitals and clinics were being bombed. "There are not enough medical supplies or doctors to treat the injured."

ISIL proclaimed Palmyra's capture online and posted video and several pictures on Thursday, including of the notorious Tadmur prison, where extensive human rights abuses, torture and summary executions have taken place, but none of the ancient site.

The group has been condemned for demolishing archaeological treasures elsewhere since declaring a "caliphate" last year straddling Iraq and Syria.

It has ransacked and demolished several ancient sites, including Muslim shrines, in order to eliminate what it views as heresy, whilst allegedly selling artefacts on the black market in order to finance its campaign.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group monitoring the civil war through activists on the ground, said ISIL spread out on Thursday through Palmyra, including at the archaeological site in the city's southwest, and killed 17 people accused of "working with the regime".

Syrian state media said loyalist troops withdrew after "a large number of ISIL fighters entered the city" at the crossroads of key highways leading west to Damascus and Homs, and east to Iraq.


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Experts said the capture of the 2,000-year-old metropolis leaves ISIL strongly placed to wrest control of more territory from Syria's government and comes days after it expanded its grip in Iraq.

On Thursday the group seized al-Tanaf, the last regime-held crossing on the border with Iraq, according to the Syrian Observatory. The group now controls all of Syria's porous border with Iraq.

ISIL has recently threatened a number of regime strongholds, including Deir Ezzor city in the east and military airports in the north and south. The group now dominates the provinces of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa and has a strong presence in Hasakeh, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.

Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old desert oasis, is believed to be home to more than 100,000 people [AFP]

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies