A week after ousting the Islamic State (IS) from Palmyra, Syrian troops have reportedly made a gruesome discovery amid the ruins of ancient desert city: A mass grave containing around 40 bodies, including many women and children.
According to Syrian state news agency SANA, the soldiers found the grave last Sunday on the city's northeastern edge. The report said many of the victims were beheaded.
After IS captured Palmyra last May, it ruled the city — a world heritage site and desert oasis known for its Roman-era temples, colonnades, and theatres — with an iron fist. Palmyra's famed Roman amphitheater was used for public executions, and IS infamously released a video last year that showed the simultaneous execution of 25 Syrian government soldiers by young militants in front of the site's Roman columns while hundreds of people watched.
The city is now desolate, with burned cars, electrical cables, empty water tanks, and other debris strewn about, according to a report by Associated Press. The news agency said the IS slogan "Lasting and Expanding" was still graffitied in black paint on a stone wall at the entrance to the amphitheater. The AP witnessed Syrian troops dismantling and detonating mines left behind by the militant group, and said Russian demining units were also using robots and sniffer dogs to clear the area of explosives.
While IS occupied the city, the world looked on in horror as the militants destroyed its treasured historical monuments and artifacts. They dynamited the Temple of Bel, a 2,000-year-old monument revered for its elaborate stone carvings, but Maamoun Abdelkarim, Syria's antiquities chief, said the archeological landmark could still be salvaged.
"What was said about it all being turned to dust – it's not dust," Abdelkarim told Reuters in Damascus. "There is still a lot of the structure… that can be reused and renovated."
Abdelkarim added that it could take weeks to determine the extent of the damage in the ancient city due to mines and explosive devices hidden among the ruins. IS also ransacked the city's museum, and destroyed the Lion of al-Låt, a treasured limestone statue that guarded a renowned temple.
IS has left behind mass graves on several occasions after being forced to flee territory they have occupied. After recapturing Ramadi in January, Iraqi forces found mass graves containing the remains of soldiers and civilians. Many of those bodies were reportedly dismembered, riddled with bullets, and showed signs of torture.
In November, Iraqi forces also found large mass graves left behind by IS in Sinjar. Those graves were said to contain between 80 to 100 bodies each, with the victims mainly belonging to members of Iraq's Yazidi minority group. Another mass grave discovered west of Sinjar was rigged with bombs and contained 123 bodies.
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