Islamic State (ISIS) militants retreating from Palmyra laid thousands of mines that they planned to set off simultaneously as the army moved in, a Syrian officer said in the ancient city after its recapture from the jihadist 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 the Islamic State 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 Islamic State. “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.”
Islamic State’s defeat in Palmyra was not only a significant military victory for President Bashar al-Assad, opening up the country’s central desert to government forces and their allies. It also cast the Syrian army as an effective fighting force against jihadists bent on cultural vandalism and wanton killing.
A military source said on Saturday troops had identified 45 bodies in a mass grave in Palmyra, including civilians and Syrian army members captured by Islamic State. Parts of Palmyra have been cleared, including the road from Homs. But Syrian soldiers — soon to be joined by Russian de-mining 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 the asphalt,” the officer said. Civilians, most of whom fled before Syrian and allied forces began the offensive, cannot return until de-mining 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.