IS Planted Thousands of Mines in Palmyra

IS Planted Thousands of Mines in PalmyraIS Planted Thousands of Mines in Palmyra

The self-styled Islamic State militants retreating from Palmyra laid thousands of mines that they planned to set off simultaneously as the army moved in, a Syrian officer told Reuters in the ancient city after its recapture from the fighters.

The officer said main streets and side roads in Palmyra had been rigged with explosives weighing up to 50 kg. More than 3,000 had already been safely detonated since government forces, backed by Russian jets, retook the city on Sunday, he said.

He did not say why IS fighters failed to set off the explosives before pulling out, but his assertion echoed comments from Syria’s antiquities chief, who said the militants intended to dynamite a greater area of the city’s 2,000-year-old ruins than they already had.

The officer, who did not give his name, said the bombs left behind were linked so they could go off together.

“All the government buildings are rigged in a network connected to the Daesh leadership headquarters,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

“The idea was that as we enter it would all go off at once, not just bomb by bomb. And there are a really huge number of bombs.”

IS’s defeat in Palmyra was not only a significant military victory for President Bashar al-Assad, as it opened up the country’s central desert to government forces and their allies. It also cast the Syrian army as an effective fighting force against the militants bent on cultural vandalism and wanton killing.

Parts of Palmyra have been cleared, including the road from Homs. But Syrian soldiers—soon to be joined by Russian demining experts—are still working on defusing or detonating explosives.

“We cannot leave them there. We are dealing with 90% of them by exploding them because they are buried firmly in the ground, cemented in asphalt,” the officer said.

Civilians, most of whom fled before Syrian and allied forces began the offensive, cannot return until demining is complete.

Smoke could be seen rising from some parts of the modern, residential city of Palmyra, which lies next to the 2,000-year-old ruins, during a visit by journalists on Friday.

But few people were to be seen and no shops were open. Residential areas had been damaged and traces of explosions could be seen on the ground.

  Graffiti on Ruins

As well as a network of bombs, IS left traces of their 10-month rule in Palmyra. Graffiti was evident on some of the ancient stones. “Remaining”, it read, part of IS motto of “remaining and expanding”.

On a stone among the remains of the Temple of Bel was scrawled: “No shooting without the permission of the Emir.”

A signpost on a road through the ruins, now bent at 90 degrees to the ground, tells travelers in the group’s trademark black and white colors to “Respect God”.

The ancient Roman amphitheater, where IS shot dead around 20 men as it took over the city last May, appears unscathed.

The Temple of Bel, an imposing monument before it was blown up last year, has been reduced to a couple of columns and a heap of rubble, although antiquities chief Maamoun Abdelkarim says it is not totally beyond repair.

Other structures blown up by IS include Palmyra’s triumphal arch, three funerary towers and the temple of Baal Shamin. Before serious renovation can take place, officials say, the area needs to be made fully safe.

Moscow has sent deminers to help with the clear-up, and Russian military servicemen will start defusing mines in Palmyra in a few days, Russian news agencies reported on Saturday, citing Russia’s Defense Ministry.

The first batch of specialists has left Russian airbase Khmeimim in western Syria. The convoy, consisting of more than 20 vehicles, will be guarded by Mi-24 and Mi-28 helicopters.

The deminers will deal with more than 180 hectares of territory, the ministry has said, citing initial estimates. The aim is to clear the historical part of the ancient city as well as residential areas.