Syria's ancient oasis city of Palmyra threatened in fighting

BEIRUT Wed Apr 3, 2013 6:24pm IST

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in the ancient city of Palmyra in the heart of the Syrian desert October 28, 2011. REUTERS/Handout/Files

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in the ancient city of Palmyra in the heart of the Syrian desert October 28, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Handout/Files

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - The millenia-old oasis city of Palmyra is being damaged in clashes between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels fighting for his overthrow in the midst of the precious archaeological site, a resident said on Wednesday.

Shaky amateur footage filmed by the resident shows the facade of the first century Temple of Baal with a large circle where a mortar bomb has blasted the sandstone. The columns of the great colonnade that extends from the temple have been chipped by shrapnel. (here)

"The rebels are around the town," said the resident, who asked not to be named for fear of imprisonment. "They hide in the desert, some to the east and some to the west."

The groups attack government positions in the town at night, he said.

Hiding in the palm groves behind the ruins, the militants creep towards the ancient site, once a vital stopping point for caravans crossing the Syrian desert carrying spices, silks and perfumes, and the modern town of Tadmur behind it.

The government responds with mortar bombs, artillery shells and rockets, the resident said.

"For the past two months we have had shelling every night," said the resident, who supports the opposition movement. "The army have positioned themselves in the museum, between the town and the ruins."

Soldiers camp out in the luxury hotels once popular with tourists. The army has also entered the Roman theatre and positioned snipers behind its stone walls, he said.

Tadmur's residents took to the streets in March 2011 to call for democratic reforms and an end to the dynastic, four-decade rule of the Assad family.

But as in other cities, police and security forces suppressed the uprising, leading to an armed revolt and civil war in which more than 70,000 have been killed and millions displaced around the Middle Eastern state.

Large swathes of Syria have fallen into rebel hands but the government has managed to retain control of Palmyra.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, director of antiquities and museums at the Ministry of Culture, told Reuters that the interior of the temple was not damaged in the mortar attack, which caused "as much damage as a fire."

Clashes in the palm groves behind the temple and stray bullets could hit the columns and exterior of the ruins, he said by telephone from Damascus. But he said the Palmyra site was largely safe.

"Matters are under control and as for damage to archaeological sites, there is nothing," he said.

"The Syrian army is in some areas in the archaeological site and we oppose this. Our appeal goes to the Syrian government and all the parties to distance themselves from the site so it doesn't become a target for each side."

Emma Cunliffe, a researcher at Durham University in Britain, has been monitoring the destruction to Syria's archaeological sites during the civil war.

Part of her work has included documenting attacks on the Old City of Aleppo, which has seen frontline fighting and fires in its famous souks, and Crac des Chevaliers, a crusader castle on a hilltop in Homs province.

"The old citadels, of which there are a large number, have an age-old function, which is really, really thick walls that protect you from the enemy," she said by telephone from Durham.

These thick walls, she says, make them an ideal spot for a modern military base but lead to their inevitable targeting by enemy forces.

After seeing the videos from Palmyra, Cunliffe said the pattern of damage fits that caused by government-owned weapons, but added it was impossible to be sure.

"It is very unclear what ordnance the rebels actually have access to; they have not hesitated to damage their heritage if it was necessary at other sites, or to utilise it knowing it will be drawn into the line of fire," she said.

The damage to the columns could place the architrave, a beam that rests on the capitals of the columns, in critical condition, leading to more destruction, she said.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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