Headless corpses in pools of blood as Isil takes historic site
Jihadis from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) were going door-to-door in search of "regime collaborators" in the Syrian city of Palmyra last night after already leaving the bodies of nine men, some beheaded, in the street as a warning to others.
Residents said there was no immediate news of Isil fighters damaging the historic ruins of Palmyra, but that inhabitants of the modern town, known locally as Tadmur, had fled in fear.
"Isil is imposing a curfew and searching for any elements related to the regime," a resident, Abu Leith al-Shaer, said, after he too left.
"They executed nine people from two families after accusing them of being spies for the regime."
Despite the worldwide outcry at the fall of Palmyra, coming shortly after the defeat of the Iraqi government forces in Ramadi across the border to the east, Barack Obama, the US president, said he would not change course.
He has so far been hoping that a strategy of training some Syrian "moderate" rebels, and backing the official army in Iraq, would both see off Isil and eventually lead to a negotiated end to the Assad regime.
A White House spokesman said that Isil's capture of Palmyra was a "setback" for the US-led coalition in its fight against Isil.
However, François Hollande, the French president, became the first Western leader to say that the world must respond to Isil seizing Palmyra.
"We have to act because there is a threat against these monuments which are part of humankind's inheritance and at the same time we must act against Daesh," he said, referring to Isil by its Arabic name.
"It is really upsetting when a site of such riches, which belongs to all of humanity, falls into the hands of a terrorist group," he added, as he arrived at an EU-Eastern Partnership summit in the Latvian capital Riga.
Unesco warned earlier that the destruction of the Roman city, a World Heritage site, would be "an enormous loss to humanity".
"It is the birthplace of human civilisation," said Irina Bokova, director of Unesco. "It belongs to the whole of humanity and I think everyone today should be worried about what is happening." But Mr Obama rejected calls from some Republicans for America to send troops to combat Isil directly.
In an interview with 'The Atlantic' magazine, published earlier yesterday, Mr Obama insisted that the loss of Ramadi was also no more than a "tactical setback", even as tens of thousands of refugees trekked towards Baghdad. "No, I don't think we're losing," he said. He added that America would have "to ramp up not just training, but also commitment" but would not "repeat the mistakes of the past" by sending in troops to fight. The Pentagon announced that increased aid, for the time being, would consist only of 2,000 anti-tank missiles, to be used as a defence against Isil's huge suicide car bombs, which proved crucial in the fight for Ramadi.
"Today the question is not whether or not we are sending in contingents of US ground troops," Mr Obama said. "Today the question is: how do we find effective partners to govern in those parts of Iraq that right now are ungovernable and effectively defeat Isil, not just in Iraq but in Syria?"
He said that even if it took years, it was the Iraqis who had to defeat Isil. "If they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them," he said.
However, Mr Obama already seemed to be at odds in his assessment of the dangers posed by Isil with his own state department.
At a briefing late on Wednesday, a senior official said that Isil was a more accomplished outfit than its predecessor, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), which was only eventually defeated by a combination of a "surge" in US troops and recruiting an informal militia of Sunni tribal fighters.
"Isil as an organisation is better in every respect than its predecessor of AQI," the official said.
"It's better manned, it's better resourced, they have better fighters, they're more experienced.
"And we know what it took for us, the best military in the world, to get a handle on AQI."