Less damage to ancient Palmyra than feared, Syrian antiquities chief says

DAMASCUS, March 3 (Reuters) - Damage to the World Heritage site of Palymra by Islamic State militants may be less than earlier believed, Syria's antiquities chief said on Friday.

Maamoun Abdulkarim told Reuters that video from Palmyra after it was recaptured by the Syrian army has shown less damage than archaeologists feared when pictures emerged at the beginning of the year suggesting Islamic State had smashed more monuments.

Under heavy Russian air cover, the Syrian army and allied militias drove the jihadist group out of the UNESCO world heritage site on Thursday, two months after they had seized it in a surprise advance.

Fears of a new assault on Palmyra's heritage were raised after pictures in January showed the group had destroyed parts of the Tetrapylon, one of the city's most iconic monuments, and the facade of the second-century Roman Theatre.

They had already destroyed other landmarks, including a 1,800-year-old monumental arch, during their first occupation of the city which ended a year ago last March.

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A view shows the damage at the Monumental Arch in the historical city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A burnt book of the vision of Saint Jean is seen on the ground next to a damaged church on March 31, 2016 in the modern town, adjacent to the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate in this file handout picture provided by SANA on March 27, 2016. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters/Files ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A view shows the Roman Theatre in the historical city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Jounalists walk near the remains of the Monumental Arch in the historical city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A view shows the remains of the Temple of Bel in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A billboard (L) with Koranic verses is seen in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Smoke rises from the modern city as seen from the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A picture taken on March 31, 2016 shows destruction at the museum of the ancient city of Palmyra, some 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 31, 2016 shows pieces of beheaded and mutilated sculptures on the ground at the museum of the ancient city of Palmyra, some 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of the external columns of Palmyra's Temple of Bel in the ancient Syrian city on March 31, 2016 The main building of the ancient temple, the 'Cella', was destroyed by jihadists of the Islamic State group in August 2015 as well as a row of columns in its immediate vicinity. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
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But Abdulkarim said preliminary photographs and video from the city showed almost no further damage than what was already known.

"Really, our hearts had been overwhelmed with fear of a complete explosion of the theater," Abdulkarim said.

"We thought the situation would be much worse, that there would be eradication, that they [Islamic State] would complete their crimes from the first occupation," he added.

Abdulkarim said he would visit the area soon for a better assessment, but added: "At least there is some sense of tranquility after we received the initial photos. The general situation is reassuring."

Some of the damage could be repaired, he said. "Except for the previous destruction, the state of the theater looks good," Abdulkarim said. "Even that destroyed section could be repaired. It had already been restored, and it will be again."

Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur, stood at the crossroads of the ancient world.

"We had received terrifying information that there might have been a revenge crime against the entire citadel," Abdulkarim said. "There is some damage, but in general, the citadel is fine too."

FRONTLINES

Broadcasting live from inside Palmyra on Friday, Syrian state television showed pro-government forces and army troops celebrating atop the historic citadel on the outskirts of the city.

The army narrowed in on the militants from three different directions, a field commander said on state television. "We opened frontlines along all those directions," he said.

In December, Islamic State swept into Palmyra as the army and its allies focused on defeating rebels in Aleppo. Eastern Aleppo fell to the government in its most important gain of the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands and created one of the world's worst refugee crises.

Islamic State is now on the back foot in Syria after losing territory in the north to an alliance of U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led militias, and to Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups.

The Syrian army is also fighting Islamic State east of Aleppo city, where it is pushing to reach the Euphrates river, and in the city of Deir al-Zor, where it controls an enclave besieged by the militants.

However, the jihadist group still holds swathes of territory in Syria, including around the Euphrates basin and the country's eastern deserts along the border with Iraq.

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