Middle East

Syria civil war: Army 'steps up offensive from Palmyra'

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Media captionDrone footage has revealed the ancient city is largely still intact, as Ben Bland reports

The Syrian army, backed by Russian warplanes, is reported to be continuing its offensive against so-called Islamic State (IS) after recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra on Sunday.

Fighting was taking place around IS-held towns to the north-east and south-west of the city, reports said.

The army says it will use Palmyra as a launch pad to expand operations against IS and cut its supply routes.

It retook the city after days of fighting backed by Russian air strikes.

The United States welcomed the recapture of Palmyra but said it was too early to say it would affect the peace negotiations under way in Geneva.

IS seized the Unesco World Heritage site and modern town in May 2015, publicly destroying some ancient buildings and artefacts. Experts are now assessing the damage.

Syrian military sources quoted by AFP news agency said the army was targeting IS-held towns including al-Qaryatain, south-west of Palmyra, and Sukhnah towards the north-east.

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"The army was concentrated around al-Qaryatain, and today [Monday] the military operations began there," the source said.

"That is the next goal for the Syrian army. They also have their eyes on Sukhnah."

Syrian state media also said Palmyra's military airport had been reopened.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Syrian troops have been clearing the last IS fighters from Palmyra
Image copyright AP
Image caption The Syrian government is hailing the recapture of Palmyra as a major victory

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition monitoring group, also said pro-government forces were battling militants north-east of Palmyra.

It said warplanes, believed to be Russian, had targeted the main road east towards Deir al-Zour, a key town besieged by IS.

Some militants were still holed up inside Palmyra, the observatory added, and had targeted Syrian troops with car bombs and suicide attacks.

Russia has promised to send de-mining equipment and experts to help clear the city of any booby traps.

Meanwhile, experts have said that damage to the ancient ruins does not appear to have been as bad as feared.

The head of antiquities in Syria, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told the BBC that more than 80% of the ancient city was still intact.

He said restoration and some reconstruction would be required but "in general we are very happy because I thought that the result would be more disaster".

He said a meeting with Unesco chiefs is to be held in Paris soon to discuss a strategy for the city.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Roman amphitheatre, said to have been used by IS for executions, remains largely intact
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Arch of Triumph, a nearly 2,000-year-old monument, was blown up by IS militants last October

IS provoked global outrage when it blew up some of the ancient buildings, leaving two 2,000-year-old temples, an arch and funerary towers in ruins.

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

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many artefacts in the city museum have been damaged or destroyed

Correspondents say the recapture of Palmyra is one of the biggest setbacks for IS since it declared a caliphate across swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the recapture was a "good thing".

"That said, we're also mindful, of course, that the best hope for Syria and the Syrian people is not an expansion of [President] Bashar al-Assad's ability to tyrannise the Syrian people," he added.

Mr Assad hailed the operation as an "important achievement" in the "war on terrorism".

The Kremlin said the Syrian president Assad knew the Palmyra operation "would have been impossible without Russia's support".

Russia's six-month air campaign against opponents of President Assad has turned the tide of the five-year civil war in his favour.

Ancient city of Palmyra

Image copyright AFP/Getty
  • 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