Friday 20 April 2018

Syrian forces recapture ancient city of Palmyra

The site of the ancient city of Palmyra was recaptured by Syrian troops from Islamic State fighters (SANA/AP)
The site of the ancient city of Palmyra was recaptured by Syrian troops from Islamic State fighters (SANA/AP)

Syrian government forces have recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra, scoring an important victory over Islamic State fighters who waged a 10-month reign of terror there.

Syrian antiquities experts immediately announced a team would be sent to the ancient city - dubbed the "Bride of the Desert" for its famous 2,000-year-old ruins - to estimate the damage to famous monuments and artefacts.

Maamoun Abdul-Karim, Syria's head of antiquities and museums, said he would go himself to Palmyra once bomb squads finish removing explosives planted by IS militants before they lost the town.

The recapture of Palmyra by Syrian government forces on Sunday marked the first major defeat for the extremist group since an international agreement to battle terrorism in the fractured nation took effect last year.

During their rule of Palmyra, the extremists demolished some of its best-known artefacts and monuments, including two large temples dating back more than 1,800 years and a Roman triumphal archway.

IS also killed scores of people, beheaded the archaeological site's 81-year-old director, Riad al-Asaad, in August after he reportedly refused to divulge where authorities had hidden some of the treasures before the group swept in. The militants also demolished Palmyra's infamous Tadmur prison in the town centre, where thousands of government opponents were reportedly tortured.

The Sunni extremist group, which has imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, claims ancient relics promote idolatry and says it is destroying them as part of a purge of paganism - though it is also believed to have sold off looted antiquities for significant sums of cash.

Mr Abdul-Karim indicated that there are damages at the two main temples at the archaeological site, the Arch of Triumph and the funeral towers. He said experts still need "many days" to determine the exact extent of damages.

But he hailed what he described as the "professional way" Syrian troops liberated Palmyra from IS, saying that the "renovation work wouldn't be as complicated as we thought" initially.

During the fighting for Palmyra, Syrian forces avoided inflicting additional damage to its monuments, he said.

Before Palmyra fell to IS, authorities were able to rescue more than 400 statues and hundreds of artefacts that were moved to safe areas, he said, but the large statues were left and couldn't be moved.

On Sunday, state TV showed the rubble left over from the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, as well as the damaged archway, the supports of which are still standing.

Artefacts inside the city's museum also appeared heavily damaged on state TV. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was decapitated, and the museum's basement appeared to have been dynamited, the hall littered with broken statues.

State media reported that a lion statue dating back to the second century, previously thought to have been destroyed by IS militants, was found in a damaged but recoverable condition.

Mr Abdul-Karim said that IS fighters smashed the statues' faces but did not totally destroy them. "We can renovate them," he said. "Yes, we lost part of the original but we didn't totally lose them."

"All smashed statues can be renovated as they were not totally destroyed," he said.

On Monday Syrian military bomb squads worked on removing mines and bombs planted by IS across much of Palmyra, including residential areas as well as the historic quarter.

Press Association

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