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Recent victories by Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq a setback: Obama -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The militant group Islamic State has made two significant advances this week, overrunning the key strategic city of Ramadi in Iraq and the ancient World Heritage-listed city of Palmyra in Syria.

The militants are now holding about 50 per cent of Syrian territory.

The victories have left many questioning the strategy of the US-led coalition and, in a moment, we'll hear from a security and defence analyst in Washington.

But first, Lindy Kerin prepared this report:

LINDY KERIN: A video posted online purports to show Islamic State fighters inside a gas field north-east of Palmyra. It shows fires burning and fighters around the facility randomly firing their weapons.

There are reports 17 people have been executed and that militants have also taken control of Palmyra's military air base and a prison.

This man, who didn't want to be identified, has told the BBC about his contact with his family in the ancient city.

PALMYRA MAN: Everybody was in chaos. The ISIS fighters were crossing the city, north and south, following the Syrian army soldiers. And they announced this morning by the mosque speakers: if there is any family hiding or hosting any Syrian army fighters they should report to IS fighters.

There is also some pictures that were leaked this morning of some beheaded soldiers. So basically the main focus now for IS fighters is to look and inspect the whole city for what they call - they use this term - like, the "clearance" of their territory.

LINDY KERIN: There are fears the militants will begin destroying the ancient ruins in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city, similar to the acts of vandalism on historic sites in Iraq.

US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf says there are serious concerns about the fate of historic monuments.

MARIE HARF: In the same way we've talked about the destruction or possible destruction of other historic sites, whether it's in Iraq or Syria, we've spoken out very strongly against this and that's certainly a concern. Palmyra has been caught in the crossfire of this fighting for some time now, as have other sites. So it's obviously of great concern.

REPORTER: Are you calling, are you trying to coordinate with UNESCO or some other bodies in any kind of bid to stop any potential destruction?

MARIE HARF: I think it's challenging. I mean, when you talk about who can stop ISIL from destroying them: I think that's a pretty challenging thing to do. We've certainly called on them not to. This is a tough fight here, though.

LINDY KERIN: The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says that, taking Palmyra, Islamic State fighters now control more than 95,000 square kilometres in Syria, which is 50 per cent of the country's territory.

The fall of Palmyra comes just days after the Islamic State fighters seized Ramadi in neighbouring Iraq.

The US president has described the advances as "a setback". But it's left some questioning the effectiveness of the military strategy.

But White House spokesman Josh Ernest says the president disagrees with Republican demands that US ground troops be sent to fight.

JOSH ERNEST: I suspect that there are some who support changing the strategy and sending US military personnel to go and take care of this problem. There is no doubt that through the bravery and capability of our men and women in uniform that that would make a substantial difference.

The president, however, does not support that strategy. What this administration will continue to do is to implement the strategy that the president has laid out, which is to build up the capacity of local fighters on the ground in Iraq and in Syria to take the fight against ISIL in their own country.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: White House spokesman Josh Ernest ending Lindy Kerin's report.