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IS storms center of Palmyra; civilians trapped inside historic town

AMMAN: The Islamic State appears to be making rapid progress […]

20 May 2015

AMMAN: The Islamic State appears to be making rapid progress towards capturing Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to Roman-era ruins, as regime soldiers buckle under an IS force that resident Mohammed Hassan described to Syria Direct as “massive.”

The Islamic State “is attacking in massive numbers, telling us the town will be under their control within two days,” said Hassan from inside Palmyra, where IS has taken the north, parts of the center and the southeast periphery.  

At least three sources inside Palmyra told Syria Direct on Wednesday that regime forces appeared unable to fend off the offensive, while not allowing citizens to leave.

“It’s strange, the regime was well-fortified and summoned a large number of reinforcements—its collapse at this rate was unexpected,” said Samir Abu al-Kheir, a local citizen journalist.

“The regime has more or less given up, the situation is very confused,” Khaled al-Homsi, a member of the Palmyra LCC, told Syria Direct Wednesday. “Regime soldiers are fleeing from the checkpoints and IS is taking control of most of the security branches.”

After capturing the northern side of Palmyra Tuesday night, IS fighters stormed points in the center of the town Wednesday morning, taking the State Security building and another administrative building, reported pro-opposition al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Mohammed Hassan, the civilian inside Palmyra, confirmed to Syria Direct IS control of those locations, adding the bakery and Udhina School to the list, both located in the town’s center.

The Islamic State, invading from both the north and the southeast, is now 300 meters away from the Military Security building, where regime soldiers fleeing from other locations have regrouped, said Hassan.

Palmyra’s famous ruins are in the southwest, less than two kilometers from the town center. The State Security building, now controlled by the Islamic State, is 925 meters away from the ruins.

Also on Wednesday morning, IS captured the Khatab checkpoint in the southeast of the city, reported the Palmyra LCC. Regime soldiers have fled from a second checkpoint in the southeast, said Mohammed Hassan.

Palmyra residents are caught up in the fighting as the regime has reportedly prevented them from exiting the city “in order to put pressure on IS not to use car bombs” that would cause large numbers of civilian casualties, said Hassan. That claim could not been independently verified, but other residents of the town confirmed the regime was preventing civilians from fleeing.

Many of those who escaped the northern part of the town “are sleeping in the streets as the regime bombs certain neighborhoods and IS targets checkpoints,” he added.

In a possible bid to slow IS’s advance, the regime moved a large number of prisoners from Palmyra’s infamous prison on the outskirts to the Military Security Branch inside the town Tuesday. “Activists saw it as the first move before the prisoners are thrown into a battle against the Islamic State,” reported al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Samir Abu al-Kheir, a citizen journalist from the town, confirmed that “three large buses” moved prisoners into the Military Security Branch.

“They will be put [on the front] as human shields.”

The assault on Palmyra began last week when IS captured al-Amariya, a town directly to the north, and simultaneously launched an attack on the officers’ quarters to the east of the city. On Monday, IS fighters withdrew from the northern areas of the city towards al-Amariya and al-Maalaf, and towards the groves in the southeast vicinity of the town.     

“Residents are afraid of what will happen to Palmyra,” said Mohammed Hassan.

“We don’t know what the regime might do if it withdraws… or what the Islamic State might do.” 

Dan Wilkofsky contributed reporting. 

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