Monday 24 July 2017

Ancient Palmyra free again as Isil retreats under Syrian attack

Syrian regime fighters take position as they advance on the ancient city of Palmyra yesterday
Syrian regime fighters take position as they advance on the ancient city of Palmyra yesterday

Josie Ensor in Beiruit

SYRIAN forces and their allies were celebrating the recapture of Palmyra from Isil yesterday, after the militants appeared to have been driven out of the ancient city for a second time.

Syrian soldiers, backed by Russian air raids and ground troops, pushed into the city overnight on Wednesday after days of fierce battles with Isil.

They paused before entering the site of the ancient ruins in the southwest, which they feared had been rigged with mines.

"Isil withdrew from most of Palmyra after laying mines across the city," Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said. "There are no fighters left in most of the Old City, but it is heavily mined."

Dozens of militants were reported to have fled in a convoy towards the nearby town of al-Sukhnah, but were targeted by air strikes.

Photographs showed Russian soldiers standing in front of Palmyra's Roman amphitheatre, which was partly damaged and strewn with debris.

The historic oasis city, listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, has traded hands several times in six years of civil war and became a symbol of Isil's destruction of cultural heritage.

The jihadists first took Palmyra in May 2015 before it fell to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad after a Russian-backed offensive in March 2016. However, Isil managed to recapture the city last December after a surprise assault that severely embarrassed the Damascus regime.

Satellite images last month suggested Isil had carried out further desecration - dynamiting the Tetrapylon monument and blowing up the front of the amphitheatre. The new photographs confirmed the destruction and showed fresh damage to the citadel, which seemed to be crumbling on one side.

"I prepared for the eventuality that the barbarians had blown the whole thing up, so there is some small relief that the citadel and amphitheatre are still standing," Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's antiquities chief, said. "The second nightmare is over now, I pray there isn't a third."

Before Isil, the city boasted temples, colonnaded alleys and elaborately decorated tombs that were among the best preserved classical monuments in the Middle East.

Mr Abdulkarim said he would travel to Palmyra to assess the damage and looting early next week.

Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, dozens of civilians were reportedly killed in a suspected US air strike on a historic mosque being used as an Isil base in Mosul.

Residents said a number of militants, as well as civilians sheltering in the Ottoman-era Omar al-Aswad mosque, were killed. Several more died as nearby houses collapsed.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition said he was not aware of such an air strike.

Telegraph.co.uk

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