Reports say that militants from the so-called Islamic State (IS) have blown up a 2000-year old temple in ancient Palmyra, just days after beheading the Syrian city's retired antiquities chief, an official said.
News that the jihadists detonated explosives in the UNESCO-listed site's Baal Shamin temple emerged on Sunday, causing significant damage to its interior and collapsing some of its columns, Syrian Antiquities and Museums Department head Maamoun Abdulkarim told a number of media outlets, including the state-run SANA news agency.
Syrian archaeologist Cheikmous Ali, founder of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA), told VICE News that the temple, which was originally dedicated to the sun god of pre-Islamic Palmyra, had been partly destroyed by IS "savages."
The group seized Palmyra from government forces in May, prompting fears for the two millennia old Roman-era ruins on the modern town's outskirts, as well as antiquities displayed in its museum. IS enforces an extreme interpretation of Islamic law in its self-styled "caliphate" and brands statues and other historical artifacts as idolatrous.
"We have said repeatedly the next phase would be one of terrorizing people and when they have time they will begin destroying temples," Abdulkarim told Reuters. "I am seeing Palmyra being destroyed in front of my eyes," he said. "God help us in the days to come."
IS has destroyed archaeological sites in other areas under its control in Syria and neighboring Iraq, but so far left the ancient buildings in Palmyra undamaged, although the group was reported to have rigged the city with explosives. It also destroyed the 1800-year-old Lion Statue of Athena at the gates of Palmyra's museum, as well as some funerary busts. Many of Palmyra's museum pieces were removed from the city before IS's arrival, however.
The war had already taken a toll on the site, Ali says, with damage first taking place in 2012 when the Syrian army built roads and fortifications within the historic ruins and used ancient stone blocks to protect fighting positions and vehicles.
IS executed Khaled al-Asaad, 81, Palmyra's former director-general of antiquities and museums last week after detaining and interrogating him for a month in an attempt to find treasures in the city.
Assad was beheaded in a square near Palmyra's museum, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information from a network of local sources.
Pictures subsequently circulated on IS-linked social media accounts appeared to show Asaad's bloodied body tied to a traffic light post in the middle of a main road, with his severed head between his feet. A sign tied to the corpse identifies it as Asaad and describes him as an "apostate" and "supporter of the Alawite regime," in reference to the minority religious sect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It goes on to say that the antiquities expert had represented Syria in international conferences branded as "kuffar" (a derogatory term used to refer to non-Muslims), and that he'd had various connections and communications with Alawite and government figures.
One of Asaad's sons said local residents told him the group had then cut his father's body "into pieces", AFP reported.
IS also released a video in July showing 25 captured government troops being shot dead by young militants in Palmyra's amphitheater.
The group has destroyed antiquities and heritage sites in other areas under its control, including parts of neighboring Iraq. Earlier this year it released a video showing its members smashing statues in the country's second city of Mosul, and it also blew up parts of the ancient city of Nimrud.
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