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'Liberation' of ancient Palmyra came at huge cost, say opposition activists

Cairo: Ten months after losing control of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syrian forces recaptured it from the hands of the so-called Islamic State at the weekend.

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Ancient city decimated by IS

Drone footage shows the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra after battles between IS and government forces.

Maamoun Abdelkarim, Syria's director of antiquities and museums, was elated at the news.

"Finally we have reached the end of the nightmare, the end of the crisis and there is light at the end of the tunnel," he told Fairfax Media.

The ancient ruins of Palmyra are on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
The ancient ruins of Palmyra are on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Photo: SANA via AP

"This is not just a celebration for the Syrian people only but it's a global cultural battle, a civilisational one that matters to all Syrians — without any distinctions between those who are loyalists or in opposition," he added.

But amid the messages of support from world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, others in Palmyra - known in Arabic as Tadmur - are afraid of what is to come.

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A 30-year-old activist from the anti-Assad Palmyra Revolutionary Coordination Committee, who asked to be referred to as Abdul Majd al-Tadmuri, told Fairfax Media "the regime wants to show the whole world with Russian support that they are the only force that can stand up against IS's barbarity ... but that's not true".

The local opposition group, which started in July 2011 after the revolution against Dr Assad turned bloody, still receives footage from activists on the ground using satellite phones in hidden sites around the city. It said in a statement that Russian raids over a week had destroyed half of Palmyra's infrastructure.

This photo from the Syrian state news agency SANA shows government soldiers in the streets of Palmyra.
This photo from the Syrian state news agency SANA shows government soldiers in the streets of Palmyra.  Photo: SANA via AP

"When Palmyra was invaded in May 2015 by the Islamic State, it was more of a swap between the regime and the terrorists," 'Abdul Majd' said. "The Syrian forces withdrew from their military stronghold in the city centre, the airport, the prison, to the deserted areas outside of the city."

A burned vehicle with machine gun is seen next to a motorcycle draped with the Islamic State flag in Palmyra.
A burned vehicle with machine gun is seen next to a motorcycle draped with the Islamic State flag in Palmyra. Photo: SANA via AP

Dr Abdelkarim estimated that 80 per cent of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city was in decent condition.

"We will definitely restore the Bel and Baalshamin temples, these will be the first sites that we turn our attention to," he said.

A photo released  by the Syrian state news agency SANA shows destroyed reliefs and relics from Palmyra's museum.
A photo released by the Syrian state news agency SANA shows destroyed reliefs and relics from Palmyra's museum. Photo: SANA/AP

IS had destroyed the iconic Roman Arch of Triumph, the 2000-year old Baalshamin temple, parts of the temple of Bel and other ancient tombs. The group also murdered 82-year-old antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad and released photos of his mutilated corpse hanging on a pole in Palmyra's square.

Yet Dr Abdelkarim also revealed to Fairfax Media that up until a few months ago he had 45 employees working in Palmyra.

This photo from Syrian state media purports to show vandalism at the Palmyra Museum after the city was recaptured from ...
This photo from Syrian state media purports to show vandalism at the Palmyra Museum after the city was recaptured from the militants of the so-called Islamic State. Photo: SANA via AP

"Their situation was difficult because they were working under [IS] and we had to pay their pensions out nonetheless. They are very loyal and care about preserving our precious heritage. We don't separate heritage for the government or for the opposition, we assess all heritage."

IS has declared ancient temples and tombs such as those at Palmyra idolatrous. UNESCO has cited "cultural cleansing" by IS in the destruction of mosques, shrines and churches in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

The recapture of the city is the latest in a string of losses for IS fighters. It comes against a backdrop of talks in Geneva between the government in Damascus and opposition groups where a ceasefire was recently negotiated which has largely held. The Syrian conflict has entered its fifth year with over 200,000 people killed and nearly 5 million forced to flee the country.

Dr Abdelkarim estimates that 300 historical sites and 450 individual buildings are damaged in varying degrees throughout Syria, whether through the conflict or looting, but was hopeful that archaeological restoration would also be a sign of the conflict abating.

Palmyra, three hours north-east of Damascus, boasts priceless 2nd-century relics marrying Greco-Roman and Persian influences. The ancient city served as an important trading hub along the Silk Road.

In recent decades the city was also the site of one of the Assad regime's most notorious prisons, which IS also blew up.

"If the ancient city had remained under control of these terrorists, our civilisation's fate would have been sealed," Dr Abdelkarim said. "We would have been ashamed in front of our children."

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