DAMASCUS, Syria, May 21 (UPI) -- Islamic State militants now control about half of Syria, including most of its gas and oil fields, and the Palmyra archeological site, an observer group said Thursday.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the majority of Syria's gas and oil production is providing funding for IS activities, and that the group has captured nearly 40,000 square miles of the country. Among the areas captured are the adjacent cities of Tadmur and Palmyra; IS militants have seized Tadmur's airport and notorious prison, and the ancient ruins of Palmyra are now at risk.
Within 24 hours of taking control of Palmyra, IS militants killed at least 17 people, including soldiers and regime allies, some of them by beheading, the observatory said.
The capture of Palmyra came only five days after Ramadi, Iraq, fell to IS.
There is growing anxiety in Syria that President Bashar al-Assad's military and security forces have not provided adequate security to citizens across Syria, although he still has the support of many who find his rule more desirable than that of extremist groups like IS.
Tadmur and Palmyra residents reported that Syrian soldiers and pro-government militias were leaving the area and complicating the evacuation of civilians. IS members established a curfew Thursday night, and have broadcast information about their killing of members of the local Shaitat tribe, which has supported the Assad regime. The massive ruins at Palmyra, which date back to the 1st century A.D. when the community was a Roman Empire outpost, are also at risk. Regarded as one of the foremost archeological sites in the Middle East, the desert city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. IS has destroyed and looted other sites in Syria and Iraq, selling many antiquities to finance their operations, and damaging others it considers idolatrous.
"There are no forces to stop them, but the important thing also is they now control 50 percent of Syria," said Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.