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UNESCO chief alarmed by clashes near Syria’s ancient Palmyra

The chief of the U.N.'s education and culture agency, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, left, meets with Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam, right, at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, May 15, 2015. Bokova is in Lebanon to meet with Lebanese senior officials and students, and pledge UNESCO's support to the country's efforts to respond to the regional crisis and foster cultural diversity. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N. cultural agency expressed alarm Friday over clashes between Islamic State militants and Syrian government forces near the ancient city of Palmyra — one of the Middle East’s most famous UNESCO world heritage sites.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said Palmyra, famous for its 2,000-year-old ruins, should be spared from the fighting. She spoke to reporters in Beirut after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said government warplanes have been attacking IS positions on the eastern edge of Palmyra. There has also been fighting on the ground, the activist groups said.

On Friday, Syrian state news agency SANA said troops were “chasing” IS fighters in several areas north and east of Palmyra.

The Observatory said the fighting near Palmyra on Friday killed three IS fighters and 10 government troops.

The Syrian government has urged the international community to protect Palmyra from IS, which recently destroyed several archaeological sites in neighboring Iraq.

Bokova expressed concern over Palmyra, saying “heritage sites should not be used for military purposes.”

“I appealed yesterday to all parties concerned to protect Palmyra and to leave it outside their military activity,” she said.

“The site has already suffered four years of conflict,” she said in an earlier statement, adding that it “represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world.”

Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums, said the situation Friday is better than the day before, with the army “firmly controlling the city.”

An activist based in the central province of Homs who goes by the name of Bebars al-Talawy said IS is bringing reinforcements from the nearby province of Deir el-Zour. He said the government is also deploying additional forces.

“So far the regime has not been able to take what it lost to the Islamic State,” al-Talawy said via Skype. He said the IS has opened at least four different fronts surrounding the city.

Thousands of tourists used to visit Palmyra’s towering Roman-era colonnades and temple to the god Baal. Since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, looters have stolen artifacts from museums and damaged Palmyra’s ruins.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, accused Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government of indifference over Palmyra, saying on Friday that Damascus wouldn’t mind a “cultural catastrophe that the Islamic State could carry out in the city” because such an event would divert attention from its own wrongdoings.

In comments to the state news agency, Gov. Talal Barazi of the central Homs province, where Palmyra is located, said the ancient sites in the city are protected and that government offices in the city function normally.

But a Facebook page operated by activists in Palmyra reported that there has been no water in the city for three days.

Assad’s forces have recently suffered a string of battlefield setbacks in the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern Daraa region.

On Wednesday, Bokova launched a dramatic appeal in Cairo, saying that the destruction and looting of archaeological sites in the Middle East — such as the rampage perpetrated by the Islamic State group in Iraq — should be condemned as a “war crime.”

Government aircraft meanwhile bombed an IS-held town in the northern Aleppo province, killing at least seven people, according to the Local Coordination Committees. The Observatory said 14 civilians were killed, including four children and two women.

The U.N. estimates that some 220,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began more than four years ago.

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Follow Bassem Mroue on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bmroue

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