Islamic State fighters broke into the museum of Palmyra, though a Syrian official said its artifacts have been removed and are safe while the U.S.-led coalition conducted airstrikes on the group’s installations near the captured ancient town — the first such reported attack in the central province of Homs.
The Department of Defense said in a statement that U.S.-led coalition aircraft had attacked an IS position near Palmyra, which goes by the modern name Tadmur, destroying six anti-aircraft artillery systems and an artillery piece.
The Islamic State group captured Palmyra on Wednesday, raising concerns around the world they would destroy priceless, 2,000-year-old temples, tombs and colonnades located in the town’s south.
The strikes would appear to help the embattled forces of forces of President Bashar Assad, which have had a succession of recent defeats to IS group and other rebels. But experts and archeologists said the airstrike, coming days after the group overwhelmed the city, was too little too late.
“It is like closing the doors after the horses have bolted,” said Amr Al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official and currently a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio.
A picture circulated on Twitter accounts of Islamic State supporters showed the black flag used by the extremists raised over the town’s hilltop Islamic-era castle, a structure hundreds of years old. Al-Azm said the fact that the castle dates back to an Islamic civilization may protect it from the kind of destruction IS members have inflicted on pre-Islamic heritage sites such as the ancient cities of Hatra and Ninevah in Iraq.
The group says the ancient relics promote idolatry, but, it also maintains a lucrative business by excavating and selling such artifacts on the black market, according to antiquities authorities.
One activist in the city of Palmyra, who goes by the name of Khaled al-Homsi because of security concerns, told The Associated Press that the militants smashed a statue in the museum’s foyer — a replica that depicts ancient residents of Palmyra.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, told the AP that militants entered the museum in the town’s center Friday afternoon, locked the doors and left behind their own guards. He said that the artifacts earlier had been moved away to safety.
“We feel proud as all the museum’s contents were taken to safe areas,” he told reporters. But Abdulkarim warned that the Islamic State group’s control of the town remains a danger to its archaeological sites.
Al-Azm said he doubts the museum was totally emptied because larger pieces would be hard to move. He said the museum also contained at least two mummies, and carvings from the nearby tombs, mostly dating to the 1st, 2nd and early 3rd century
Al-Azm said he fears that the “real looting” will take place at the site itself, adding that the group will take its time to recruit local antiquities experts to help in running the illicit trade. But he worried that the Temple of Bel, the majestic structure in the heart of this desert oasis, will ultimately be destroyed.
“It is the poster child of an IS cultural heritage atrocity,” he said, saying the temple in later years was used as a church and has walls covered in frescos.
Al-Azm said the only way to save the ancient site is by driving the Islamic State group out of the town.