Damage to Palmyra site may not be as bad as feared

The city was liberated yesterday from IS, who had held it since May

Damage to Palmyra site may not be as bad as feared

This image shows ruins in the city of Palmyra | Image: F. Bandarin/UNESCO

The first pictures to emerge from inside Palmyra since Islamic State was driven out have given hope that some of the ancient city's treasures could be salvaged.

Syrian troops entering the city after defeating the extremists in a bloody battle have found extensive damage to the UNESCO world heritage site, but much of the ancient city remains intact.

Archaeologists have reportedly been dispatched from Damascus to assess conditions after at least 400 IS fighters were killed in fighting for the city - thought to be the group's heaviest losses in a single battle.

IS sparked a global outcry when it started destroying Palmyra's monuments, which they consider idolatrous, after taking the city in May 2015.

Syria's antiquities chief said the priceless artefacts had survived better than feared from a campaign of destruction UNESCO described as a "war crime".

"We were expecting the worst. But the landscape, in general, is in good shape," Maamoun Abdulkarim said from Damascus.

"We could have completely lost Palmyra ... The joy I feel is indescribable."

IS had used Palmyra's ancient theatre as a venue for public executions and also murdered the city's 82-year-old former antiquities chief.

Russian forces were heavily involved in the fight to retake the city, with warplanes carrying out around 40 sorties, striking 117 "terrorist targets" and killing 80 IS fighters, Moscow's defence ministry said.

The Syrian army said the city would now serve as a base to "broaden operations" against IS, including in its stronghold of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor further east.

The ancient city, northeast of Damascus, drew some 150,000 tourists a year before Syria's civil war and is known to Syrians as the "Pearl of the Desert".

IS and its jihadist rival, the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front, are not party to a ceasefire in force across Syria since 27 February.

The truce has brought relative quiet to many areas across Syria, where more than 270,000 have been killed and millions had fled their homes in the last five years.