Syrian troops clear Palmyra of mines as scale of fresh damage is revealed

Josie Ensor
The damaged Roman amphitheatre in the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria - AFP or licensors

Syrian army units have begun clearing land mines and explosives left behind by Isil militants in the historic town of Palmyra,  after government troops and allied militiamen recaptured it from the jihadists.

The military expects the process to be long and difficult due to the large number of mines planted by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) before they retreated. 

Syrian troops, backed by Russian and Lebanese Hizbullah fighters, fully recaptured Palmyra on Thursday after a push that saw the militants' defenses crumble.

Syrian troops drive up to the ancient ruins in Palmyra, after recapturing the town on Thursday - Credit: AFP

It is the third time the town — famed for its priceless Roman ruins and archaeological treasures Isil had sought to destroy — has changed hands in one year. The Syrian government seized the town from the militants last March, only to lose it again 10 months later.

Last spring, it took Russian demining experts weeks to clear the town from hundreds of mines planted by Isil. 

Before and after split of Palmyra's Roman amphitheatre - Credit: AFP

Since capturing the town again in December, Isil fighters wrought fresh damage on the ruins. Pictures released on Friday show new damage to the Unesco listed citadel, which appears to have collapsed on one side.

They also dynamited the front of the Roman amphitheatre as well as the famous 12-column Tetrapylon.

A file photo taken on March 31, 2016, (top) of the amphitheatre in the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria, and a photo (bottom) taken on March 3, 2017, of the amphitheatre displaying damage - Credit: AFP

Speaking to the Telegraph earlier this week, Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's antiquities minister, said he was devastated by the new damage but thankful most of the structures were largely in tact and still standing.

"We must work now to preserve what is left," he said. "This isn't just the government's heritage, but the opposition's and the world's."

He will travel to the ancient site next week from Damascus to assess what needs to be restored. 

Before the civil war gripped Syria in 2011, Palmyra was a top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

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