IS group enters Syrian town of Palmyra, nears ancient ruins

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BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State fighters have pushed into the Syrian town of Palmyra, home to famed 2,000-year-old ruins, and are clashing with government troops in residential areas.

The militants entered from the north and have not reached the UNESCO world heritage site, which is southwest of Palmyra.

The IS push on the town in the central Homs province, which began on Thursday, has raised alarm in Syria and abroad. The group is notorious for destroying archaeological sites in neighboring Iraq.

Palmyra is one of the most famous world heritage sites in the Middle East, and before the civil war thousands of tourists came to see its Roman-era colonnades. The U.N. cultural agency chief Irina Bokova expressed alarm Friday over the clashes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activist Bebares al-Talawy said the militants were clashing with government troops in the northern part of the town on Saturday. The Observatory said the IS fighters have seized control of parts of the town.

Al-Talawy, who is near Palmyra, said the group took control of a government building and the water company. He said government forces still control the airport in the town's northeast.

A video circulated on social media shows a man raising a black IS flag on a building allegedly in northern Palmyra. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting.

In recent days the extremists have seized a gas field northeast of Palmyra as well as nearby villages, driving many of the residents out. Government aircraft have bombed militant positions on the town's outskirts.

Syrian officials said in a statement carried by the state news agency that troops repelled a militant advance from the south.

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