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Islamic State beheads Syrian antiquities scholar (w/video)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Islamic State extremists have beheaded the 83-year-old retired director of antiquities in the Syrian city of Palmyra, one of the world's most important archaeological sites.

Before retiring a decade ago, Khalid al-Asaad was the top overseer for Palmyra's Roman-era ruins and the gatekeeper for researchers seeking to work there for more than five decades.

"Anyone who wanted to do anything in Palmyra had to work though Khalid al-Asaad," said Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. "He was Mr. Palmyra."

After detaining him for weeks, the jihadis on Tuesday dragged Asaad to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head, according to the Syrian government and Asaad's relatives. His body was then suspended by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by supporters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Islamic State fighters seized Palmyra from government forces in May, raising fears that they would destroy its rich antiquities or sell them to finance its operations. Workers smuggled out much of the contents of the city's museum before the jihadis entered, but some larger pieces left behind have been destroyed, as have a number of area tombs.

The jihadis are not thought to have significantly damaged the city's ruins, and some think they are using them for protection, assuming the U.S.-led military coalition that's bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria will not bomb a UNESCO heritage site.

Despite his long career with the Syrian government, Asaad never considered fleeing the city as the jihadis approached, even after they detained him for a few days, relatives said. They arrested him again months later.

"He was a man who was very connected to his city and to the antiquities," said his nephew, who goes by the name Khalid al-Homsi. "He was old. Where would he want to go at that age? He said that whatever was going to happen to the people would happen to him."