BEIRUT/DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Islamic State militants published photos on Tuesday purporting to show the destruction of a Roman-era temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, an act the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO has called a war crime.
Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told Reuters the images did appear to show the destruction of the ancient Baal Shamin temple and correlated with descriptions given by residents of the explosion detonated there on Sunday.
Five photos were distributed on social media showing explosives being carried inside, being planted around the walls of the temple, a large blast and then rubble.
The blast photo shows a huge cloud of grey smoke soaring above the temple, with ancient columns in the foreground.
Reuters could not independently verify the pictures. Activists say Islamic State is tightly controlling communications in the central desert city.
UNESCO has described the temple and Palmyra’s surrounding sites as symbols of Syria’s historical cultural diversity, which it says Islamic State is seeking to obliterate.
“It stood as it was for more than 1,800 years... It was a beautiful tourist attraction,” antiquities chief Abdulkarim said by telephone.
He said Islamic State had sought to destroy Palmyra's culture and economy, as well as killing the long-serving keeper of its ancient ruins.
Abdulkarim said last week the group had beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist who had looked after Palmyra’s ruins for four decades, and hung his body in public.
Islamic State has proclaimed a caliphate to rule over all Muslims from territory it holds in both Syria and Iraq. It has a history of carrying out mass killings in places it captures and of demolishing monuments it considers pagan and idolatrous.
Islamic State seized the desert city of Palmyra in May from government forces but initially left its historic sites undamaged.
It has killed people it accused of being government supporters in Palmyra’s ancient amphitheatre, according to activists.
Before the capture of the city, site of some of the world’s most extensive and best-preserved Roman-era ruins, Syrian officials said they had moved hundreds of ancient statues to safe locations.
Reporting by Sylvia Westall in Beirut and Kinda Makieh in Damacsus,; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Dominic Evans