Sunday 22 September 2019

Isil closing in again on ancient city of Palmyra

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state of the nation address in the Kremlin (AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state of the nation address in the Kremlin (AP)
The famous Roman theatre in the ancient city of Palmyra (AP)
This photo released on Sunday March 27, 2016, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows a general view of Palmyra citadel, central Syria. Palmyra is an archaeological gem that Syrian troops took back from Islamic State fighters in central Syria. The amount of destruction found inside the archaeological area in the historic Syrian town of Palmyra was similar to what experts have expected but the shock came Monday from inside the local museum where the extremists have caused wide damage demolishing invaluable statues that were torn to pieces. (SANA via AP)
The amount of destruction found inside the archaeological area in the historic Syrian town of Palmyra was similar to what experts have expected but the shock came Monday from inside the local museum where the extremists have caused wide damage demolishing invaluable statues that were torn to pieces. (SANA via AP)
Destroyed statues at the damaged Palmyra Museum, in Palmyra city, central Syria. (SANA via AP)

Josie Ensor in Beirut

Isil has advanced to within two miles of Palmyra, pushing once again to retake the Unesco World Heritage city from Syrian forces while they are tied up with battles elsewhere.

Isil fighters had begun surrounding the desert city from the north, east and south before an attempt to storm it.

The militants were said to have managed to capture several key areas in the past 24 hours, with as many as 50 troops reported dead in the attacks and a video posted by Isil showed four captured soldiers handcuffed and on their knees.

Isil was still present in parts of the east of the province of Homs, in which Palmyra lies, and had carried out insurgent attacks on government positions in recent months.

Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the current assault was the first to see Isil seize territory since it was pushed out.

Backed by Russian air forces, the Syrian army recaptured the city - noted for having some of the most extensive ruins of the old Roman Empire - from Isil in March after 10 months in the hands of the jihadists.

A Russian sapper works to clear mines in the historic part of Palmyra, Syria, earlier this year, after it was retaken from Isil. The jihadists carried out a mass killing in the ancient city before Syrian troops expelled them from it. Photo: Reuters
A Russian sapper works to clear mines in the historic part of Palmyra, Syria, earlier this year, after it was retaken from Isil. The jihadists carried out a mass killing in the ancient city before Syrian troops expelled them from it. Photo: Reuters

In those months it was under occupation, Isil destroyed the ancient temples of Baal Shamin and Bel and systematically plundered the relics at each site.

Russian forces set up a base at the site, which houses several dozen troops from both nations, but the Syrian army was badly stretched across the war-torn country battling jihadists.

In Aleppo, some 300 miles north, tens of thousands of Syrian troops were engaged in bloody fighting as the offensive on the north-western city continued. A mix of pro-government forces, Russian soldiers and regional militias have managed to retake more than 80pc of the opposition-held east Aleppo in a lightning offensive that began three weeks ago, but fears for civilians remained.

On Thursday, President Putin's Russia declared a "humanitarian pause" to evacuate thousands trapped by fighting, but it was short-lived.

Residents sent journalists audio messages of artillery fire and air strikes all through the night and morning.

"Bombing never stops," Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a teacher and activist, said around midnight.

"The regime and the Russians are putting out propaganda saying the Aleppo frontlines are relatively quiet," Yasser al Youssef, a spokesperson for the Noureddine al-Zenki rebel group in east Aleppo, said.

"This is absolutely false. The airstrikes and artillery bombardment are ongoing on all districts of Aleppo and all the frontlines are on fire."

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry meet today in Geneva to try again to reach a truce agreement.

Irish Independent

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