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IS militants advance on Syrian city of Palmyra -

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ELEANOR HALL: Now to reports that the historic Syrian city of Palmyra is almost fully in the hands of Islamic State militants.

That's driving alarm about the safety of the residents and analysts say the city's antiquities are now likely to be sold or destroyed.

Sarah Sedghi reports.

SARAH SEDGHI: Islamic State fighters have been closing in on the Syrian desert city for weeks.

Now it appears Palmyra has fallen to the insurgents.

Max Abrahms is a professor of Political Science at Northeastern University in Boston and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

MAX ABRAHMS: I think that Palmyra is now IS territory. The group came in to the city from the north. The ancient ruins are in the south. There are no reports saying that Islamic State has made it to ruins yet, but I don't see how that's not going to happen given the fact that the Assad army seems to have essentially conceded the town to Islamic State by withdrawing.

So I'm afraid that short of a miracle, Palymra is going to be owned essentially by Islamic State and that that means that the artefacts there will either be destroyed or smuggled and sold, you know, illicitly.

SARAH SEDGHI: It's being reported that this is the first time a city has been directly taken from the Syrian army. Is this of concern?

MAX ABRAHMS: Yeah, you know, in the past Islamic State seized so much territory by essentially storming into loosely governed areas or power vacuums often where there are pre-existing rebel groups which are less capable than Islamic State and then Islamic State forces their members to defect or seizes their weapons and just takes the territory. But in this case, what we're seeing is in a sense even more alarming, because the national military of Syria simply cannot take out Islamic State.

SARAH SEDGHI: This man is a soldier for the Syrian government and has spoken about the attack by Islamic State militants.

SYRIAN SOLDIER (translated): The IS militants have tanks, mortars, missiles, and heavy machine guns. Their weapons are advanced. They launched the attack from many directions, in groups of a dozen to 30 men. They attacked our soldiers at the outposts, and some residents. They bombed these places and made them their posts. They even used civilians as shields. Now they hide themselves in Palmyra and nearby areas.

SARAH SEDGHI: Around 50,000 people live in Palmyra. It's not certain what will happen to those who haven't fled.

But Dr Benjamin Isakhan, a Middle East expert with Deakin University, says the brutality of IS has been seen in other areas it has seized.

BENJAMIN ISAKHAN: ISIS have a very established track record in what they do to civilian populations.

Firstly they will undertake a very dramatic genocidal campaign in which they will actively persecute, and if not execute, anybody who follows alternative religions and anybody who follows their sort of interpretation of Islam will then be forced to swear allegiance to the Islamic State and forced to live under their very strict version of Sharia law. And these are typically horrible situations for ordinary civilian populations.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Dr Benjamin Isakhan from Deakin University ending Sarah Sedghi's report.