BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State group militants searched through the Syrian town of Palmyra for government troops and fighters, using lists of names and informers to track them down and shooting some in the head on the spot, activists said Friday, estimating at least 150 have been killed in the past two days.
The purge was part of a clampdown by the extremist group to solidify its grip on the town since overrunning it late Wednesday. The militants have also imposed a curfew from 5 p.m. until sunrise and banned people from leaving town until Saturday morning to ensure none of the government figures they seek manage to escape, activists and officials said.
The door-to-door hunt for opponents was similar to a purge the militants carried out in the Iraqi city of Ramadi after capturing it last week.
“The search is going from house to house, shop to shop and people on the streets have to show identity cards,” said Osama al-Khatib, an activist from Palmyra who is currently in Turkey. Al-Khatib last contacted his friends and relatives in Palmyra on Friday morning before the government cut off all land and cellular telephones as well as Internet service in the town.
IS fighters have also detained dozens of suspects after seizing Palmyra, which is home to one of the Middle East’s most famous archaeological sites, activists and officials said.
Homs-based activist Bebars al-Talawy and an opposition Facebook page said that as many as 280 soldiers and pro-government militiamen have been killed in Palmyra since it was captured Wednesday.
Al-Talawy said militants abducted soldiers and pro-government gunmen from homes, shops and other places where they had sought to hide. He added that many were shot dead in the streets.
He said IS fighters used loudspeakers to warn residents against sheltering troops, leading many to come forward to give information about forces that had melted into the civilian population.
Al-Khatib said some 150 bodies lay in the streets of Palmyra, including 25 members of the pro-government militia known as the Popular Committees who were Palmyra residents.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museum Department in the Syrian capital Damascus, said “there are arrests and liquidations in Palmyra.” He added that IS fighters are “moving in residential areas, terrifying people and taking revenge.”
Abdulkarim said no gunmen were seen in the area of Palmyra’s 2,000-year-old ruins, which once attracted thousands of tourists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS fighters have killed 17 men in Palmyra and that it has unconfirmed reports of the killing of dozens more. The Local Coordination Committees, said IS fighters have killed dozens of people since Wednesday, including three siblings, two teenage girls and a teenage boy.
Gov. Talal Barazi of the central province of Homs, which includes Palmyra, said that IS fighters have abducted men and “might have committed massacres.” He added that approximately 1,400 families left the town of 65,000 before IS started preventing people from leaving on Thursday.
An amateur video posted on a pro-IS Facebook page showed residents and militants gathering around two bloodied men in military uniforms on a Palmyra street. “Let all the residents see them,” one of the men in the gathering tells an IS fighter.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.
The Observatory and al-Talawy said IS’s next target appears to be the Tayfour air base near Palmyra, where many of the government troops had retreated. They said the Islamic State group was sending reinforcements to the air base area.
Activists, al-Talawy and al-Khatib, said IS has also captured over the past day the phosphate mines at Khunayfis, near Palmyra.
In neighboring Iraq, IS militants have seized another town in the western province of Anbar less than a week after capturing the provincial capital, a tribal leader said Friday
Sheikh Rafie al-Fahdawi said the small Iraqi town of Husseiba fell to the IS group overnight when police and tribal fighters withdrew after running out of ammunition.
“We have not received any assistance from the government. Our men fought to the last bullet and several of them were killed,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Husseiba is about 7 kilometers (4 miles) east of Ramadi, where IS militants routed Iraqi forces last weekend in their most significant advance in nearly a year.
Al-Fahdawi said that with the fall of Husseiba, the militants have come closer to the strategic Habbaniyah military base, which is still held by government forces.
“The situation is very critical. The militants are about 5 kilometers from Habbaniyah base, which is now in great danger,” he said.
A day earlier, IS militants captured the Iraqi side of a key border crossing with Syria after Iraqi government forces pulled out. The fall of the al-Walid crossing, also in Anbar, will help the militants to shuttle weaponry and reinforcements more easily across the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Meanwhile, the United Nations World Food Program said it is rushing food assistance into Anbar to help tens of thousands of residents who have fled the latest fighting in Ramadi.
According to a statement by the WFP, some 25,000 people received emergency food assistance on Thursday and supplies for an additional 15,000 displaced people were en route to another area near the militant-held city of Fallujah.
The Iraqi government plans to launch a counteroffensive in Anbar involving Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which have played a key role in pushing back the IS group elsewhere in the country. The presence of the militias could however fuel sectarian tensions in the overwhelmingly Sunni province, where anger and mistrust toward the Shiite-led government runs deep.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called upon the Iraqi government to put together “a wise and precise plan” and to rely on military commanders with field expertise in order to cleanse the country of the IS group. Al-Sistani’s remarks were delivered by one of his representative during a weekly Friday sermon in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
Yacoub reported from Baghdad.