World

ISIS blasts Bel Temple in Syria's Palmyra, activists say

Islamic State militants in Syria have caused extensive damage to the Bel Temple, considered one of the greatest sites of the ancient world, in a massive explosion Sunday, activists said.

Reported explosion at 2,000-year-old site comes after militants seize ancient city and behead scholar

The 2,000-year-old Bel Temple is a UNESCO world heritage site. Activists say ISIS severely damaged it in a Sunday explosion. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

ISIS militants in Syria severely damaged the Bel Temple, considered one of the greatest sites of the ancient world, in a massive explosion Sunday, activists said.

The 2,000-year-old temple was part of the remains of the ancient caravan city of Palmyra in central Syria, which was seized by ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, in May.

The news of the latest destruction at Palmyra came just days after ISIS released propaganda images purportedly showing militants blowing up another Palmyra temple, the 2,000-year-old Baalshamin, dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and fertilizing rains.

The UN cultural agency UNESCO, which has designated Palmyra as a world heritage site, called the destruction of the Baalshamin temple a war crime. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, too, has previously called ISIS's attacks on cultural sites a war crime.

Earlier this month, relatives and witnesses said that ISIS militants had beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who devoted his life to understanding Palmyra.

The Islamic State group, which has imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across its self-declared "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq, says such ancient relics promote idolatry.

It is total destruction. The bricks and columns are on the ground.- Nasser al-Thaer, Palmyra resident 

It already has blown up several sites in neighbouring Iraq, and it is also believed to be selling looted antiquities.

A Palmyra resident, who goes by the name of Nasser al-Thaer, said ISIS militants set off a huge blast at 1:45 p.m. Sunday.

"It is total destruction," he said of the scene of the explosion. "The bricks and columns are on the ground."

"It was an explosion the deaf would hear," he added.

The resident said only the outer wall surrounding the temple remains.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists in Syria, said the temple was damaged. It did not provide details.

The temple, consecrated to the Semitic god Bel, had been well-preserved and was a source of much pride for Syrians. It was consecrated in 32 AD.

It stood out among the ruins not far from the colonnades of Palmyra, which is affectionately known by Syrians as the "Bride of the Desert."

Extremists destroyed the smaller Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, Syria, last week. It posted images of the destruction days later. (The Associated Press)

ISIS pushes into Damascus

Earlier Sunday, ISIS fighters pushed into a large district in southern Damascus, clashing with rival militants just a few kilometres from the centre of the Syrian capital, the extremist group and Syrian activists said.

More than two dozen militants were killed in the clashes on the edges of the Qadam neighbourhood, said the Observatory.

The pro-ISIS Aamaq News Agency reported that ISIS fighters seized half of Qadam. The Observatory's Rami Abdurrahman said ISIS fighters were holding two streets and that fighting was continuing.

ISIS supporters posted propaganda pictures claiming to show ISIS fighters advancing in the narrow streets of Qadam. The authenticity of the images could not be confirmed independently.

ISIS has emerged as one of the most powerful forces in the battle to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. Armed Islamic factions fighting forces loyal to Assad control parts of Damascus and large parts of the city's suburbs. ISIS fighters control large parts of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, east of Qadam.

4 killed in attack 

Also Sunday, a mortar round hit an upscale neighbourhood of central Damascus, killing four people, including a girl, Syrian state TV said.

It is not uncommon for Damascus to be shelled. Sunday's attack targeted the posh neighbourhood of Abu Rummaneh, which houses hotels and several embassies.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene saw two people wounded by shrapnel. Vehicles in the area were also damaged.

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