Islamic State group fighters withdrew from much of the Syrian oasis city of Palmyra overnight, a monitor said Thursday, but government forces paused before entering its ravaged ancient ruins because of mines.
Russian-backed Syrian troops pushed into a western neighborhood of the city late on Wednesday after fierce clashes with the jihadists.
By Thursday morning, IS had withdrawn to residential neighborhoods in the east of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“IS withdrew from most of Palmyra after laying mines across the city. There are still suicide bombers left in the eastern neighborhoods,” Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
“Government forces have not yet been able to enter the heart of the city or the eastern parts.”
Palmyra’s ancient ruins have long been listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Before IS entered the city in May 2015, they boasted temples, colonnaded alleys and elaborately decorated tombs that were among the best preserved classical monuments in the Middle East.
But the jihadists launched a campaign of destruction against them, the scale of which was fully revealed when government forces briefly retook the city with Russian support last year.
Satellite imagery has shown that IS has demolished more monuments since it recaptured Palmyra from government forces in December. Archaeologists have decried what they say is extensive damage to the city’s famed ancient ruins.
“There are no IS fighters left in most of the Old City, but it is heavily mined,” the Observatory chief said.
Supported by Russian airstrikes and ground troops, government forces have been battling through the desert for weeks to reach Palmyra.
On Wednesday, a senior military source in Damascus told AFP the army had reached a strategic crossroads leading into Palmyra.
“This crossroads is the key to entering the city,” the source told AFP.
Restored Palmyra artifacts back in Syria
Earlier this week, two badly damaged funeral busts recently recovered from Palmyra by Syrian troops were restored in Italy and returned to Syria.
The rare busts that were badly disfigured with what appeared to be hammer blows, were restored by art conservationists in Rome, the country’s antiquities director said Wednesday.
“The two statues were returned to Syria on Tuesday and added to the 400 artifacts that were rescued from Palmyra,” Maamun Abdul Karim told AFP.
They are perhaps the only such artifacts to have left the desert site without being stolen.
Restorers used a 3-D printer to generate replicas of the missing parts of the busts, which date from the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD They attached the replacement parts with magnets.
The restoration efforts are also being hailed as a tribute to Khaled al-Assad, former head of antiquities at Palmyra who was murdered by IS in 2015 at the age of 82.
AFP reporters saw the two statues — one of a woman and the other of a man — being transported from the Damascus museum to an undisclosed location on Wednesday.
Abdul Karim said the restoration of the busts “is the first real, visible positive step that the international community has taken to protect Syrian heritage.”
“This is part of cultural diplomacy, which does not prevent coordination among the people of different countries to combat extremism and barbarism,” Abdul Karim said.
“In the end, Syrian heritage is human heritage,” he told AFP.
On one, the upper part of the face had been destroyed, but the team managed to recreate the missing portion using a synthetic nylon powder and a 3-D printer, a technique that had never been used for such a restoration.
The new piece was attached to the bust with powerful magnets, “which makes it completely removable, in line with the principle that all restoration work must be completely reversible”, said Antonio Iaccarino, one of the restorers.
“What the Islamic State has destroyed, we have rebuilt,” he said. “Through culture, we also wage an ideological battle.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.