Middle East

Palmyra: Syrian government forces 'retake citadel'

A 13th Century castle, known as Qalaat Shirkuh or Qalaat Ibn Maan, sits above the ruins of Palmyra (2014) Image copyright AFP
Image caption State media said government forces had captured a castle overlooking the Roman-era ruins

Syrian government forces are reportedly advancing further into Palmyra, battling Islamic State militants for control of the ancient city.

The official Sana news agency reported that troops had taken a reconstructed 13th Century castle perched on a hill to the west of the Roman-era ruins.

IS seized the Unesco World Heritage site and adjoining modern town in May.

It subsequently destroyed two 2,000-year-old temples, an arch and funerary towers, drawing global outrage.

The jihadist group, which has also demolished several pre-Islamic sites in neighbouring Iraq, believes that such structures are idolatrous.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Troops briefly entered the modern town of Palmyra on Thursday but were pushed back

Syrian state media and activists reported that there was heavy fighting between government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, and IS militants on the outskirts of Palmyra on Friday.

In the morning, troops took full control of the so-called SyriaTel Hill on the western edge before taking the nearby castle, known as Qalaat Shirkuh or Qalaat Ibn Maan, a military sources told Sana.

Pro-government Al-Mayadeen TV said the castle, which sits on a 150m-high hilltop overlooking the ruins, was of strategic importance.

Ancient city of Palmyra

  • Unesco World Heritage site
  • Site contains monumental ruins of great city, once one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world
  • Art and architecture, from the 1st and 2nd centuries, combine Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences
  • More than 1,000 columns, a Roman aqueduct and a formidable necropolis of more than 500 tombs made up the archaeological site
  • More than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year before the Syrian conflict

Palmyra: Blowing ruins to rubble

Why IS destroys ancient sites

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the fighting had reached the edge of the ruins.

The UK-based monitoring group added that Syrian and Russian warplanes had struck at least 56 targets inside areas still controlled by IS.

The IS-linked Amaq news agency meanwhile published what it said was video footage from inside the modern town adjoining the ruins on Thursday. It included what appeared to be buildings damaged in fighting or air strikes.

Image copyright Amaq
Image caption The Amaq news agency published a video purportedly showing Palmyra's empty streets

Government forces briefly entered the town on Thursday but were pushed back.

The prospect of its liberation was welcomed by Unesco, the UN's cultural agency, which has described the destruction of Palmyra as a war crime.

"For one year, Palmyra has been a symbol of the cultural cleansing plaguing the Middle East," said its director-general Irina Bokova.

"The dynamiting and pillage of its treasures, to break an entire society, sparked a unanimous indignation and strengthened the unprecedented mobilisation in favour of the values that unite all humanity."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Unesco has called the destruction of Syria's heritage by IS militants a war crime

Ms Bokova said Unesco was ready to go to Palmyra as soon as security conditions allowed to evaluate the damage to the ruins and protect what remained.

Recapturing Palmyra would be a significant victory for the government and Russia, which withdrew most of its forces last week after a six-month air campaign against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad that turned the tide of the five-year civil war in his favour.

In addition to its ruins, Palmyra is situated in a strategically important area on the road between the capital, Damascus, and the contested eastern city of Deir al-Zour.