IS mines Palmyra ruins as regime launches new offensive

IS mines Palmyra ruins as regime launches new offensive
The Islamic State group has planted mines in the ancient ruins at Palmyra as the Syrian regime goes on the attack to reclaim lost territory.
4 min read
22 June, 2015
The IS capture of Palmyra provoked international concern for its ruins [Getty]
Islamic State group (IS) fighters have mined the spectacular ancient ruins in Syria's Palmyra, prompting renewed fears for the UNESCO World Heritage site as the Syrian regime launches an offensive to reclaim territory around the city it recently lost.

Syria's antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday the group had laid mines and explosives in Palmyra's Greco-Roman ruins.

The observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground, said the explosives were laid on Saturday.

"But it is not known if the purpose is to blow up the ruins or to prevent regime forces from advancing into the town," said observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The regime counter-offensive

This video purports to show damage caused to the modern town of Palmyra by aerial bombardment Sunday.

Al-Araby cannot independently verify the content of this video

Syria's army advanced this weekend west of the ancient city of Palmyra, reopening a key supply route for oil and gas to the capital, a newspaper and monitoring group said Monday.

"The infantry has made tangible progress in the area of west Biyarat," said the al-Watan daily, which is close to the government.

It said the army had "intensified" its operations against the Islamic State group in Palmyra and the surrounding area.

"This weekend, the regime ousted IS jihadists from al-Biyarat and is now about 10 kilometres (six miles) from Palmyra," the observatory said.

Abdel Rahman said the capture of the area "allows the regime to secure a transport route for oil from the Jazal field.... to other Syrian cities under its control."

Pro-government forces recaptured Jazal, which lies about 20 kilometres northwest of Palmyra, from IS forces last week.

It is one of the few Syrian oil fields still in government hands.

Army reinforcements were despatched to Biyarat as air raids struck the city, the observatory said, adding that at least 11 people were killed on Sunday.

A political source told AFP that a leading commander had been dispatched to the region to organise an offensive to recapture and secure Palmyra and several key gas fields nearby.

But Abdel Rahman said the regime's priorities were retaking the oil and gas fields around Palmyra, and not the city itself.

"Those fields provide electricity to Damascus, Banias on the coast, and Homs," Abdel Rahman said, adding that he doubted "the regime would attack Palmyra now, where it doesn't have popular support."

Abdulkarim also said Sunday he had received reports from Palmyra residents the ruins had been mined.

"We have preliminary information from residents saying this is correct, they have laid mines at the temple site," he told AFP.

"I hope that these reports are not correct, but we are worried."

He urged "Palmyra's residents, tribal chiefs and religious and cultural figures to intervene to prevent this... and prevent what happened in northern Iraq", referring to IS's destruction of heritage sites there.

"I am very pessimistic and feel sadness," he added.

Fears for an "irreplaceable treasure"

The IS captured Palmyra, which is famed for its extensive and well-preserved ruins, on May 21.

The group has regularly heavily mined its territory in other locations to make it more difficult to recapture.

The city's fall prompted international concern about the fate of the heritage site described by UNESCO as of "outstanding universal value."

It is not known if the purpose is to blow up the ruins or to prevent regime forces from advancing into the town.
-Rami Abdel Rahman

Before it was overrun, the head of the UN cultural body urged that the ruins be spared, saying they were "an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people, and the world."

IS has released several videos documenting its destruction of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.

In its extreme interpretation of Islam, statues, idols and shrines amount to recognising objects of worship other than God and must be destroyed.

There have been no reports of damage to sites in Palmyra since the IS seized it, though the group's fighters reportedly entered the city's museum, which had largely been emptied of its collection before they arrived.

The group executed more than 200 people in and around Palmyra in the days after capturing the city, including 20 who were shot dead in the ancient ruins, according to the observatory.

Before Syria's war began, more than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra each year, admiring its beautiful statues, more than 1,000 columns and formidable necropolis of over 500 tombs.

It had already suffered before the IS' arrival, with clashes between rebels and government forces in 2013 leaving collapsed columns and statues in their wake.

The site is also believed to have been looted during the chaos of the war that began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

In December, the UN said nearly 300 cultural heritage sites in Syria, including Palmyra, had been destroyed, damaged and looted.

More than 230,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict started.