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ISIS damage to Palmyra artifacts shocks experts

DAMASCUS, Syria - After Syrian government forces recaptured Palmyra from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS,) Syrian antiquities experts said Monday they were deeply shocked by the destruction the extremists had carried out inside the town museum, with scores of priceless relics and statues demolished.

Syria's head of antiquities and museums, Maamoun Abdul-Karim, told The Associated Press that a team from his department will head to Palmyra, known among Syrians as the "Bride of the Desert," later in the day to estimate the losses.

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Abdul-Karim said he would go himself to Palmyra once bomb squads finish removing explosives planted by ISIS militants before they lost the town.

The recapture of Palmyra by Syrian government forces on Sunday scored an important victory over ISIS fighters who had waged a 10-month reign of terror there. It also marked the first major defeat for the extremist group since an international agreement to battle terrorism in the fractured nation took effect last year.

Gen. Ali Mayhoub announced on state TV that that the fall of Palmyra "directs a fatal blow to the ISIL, undermines the morale of its mercenaries, and ushers in the start of its defeat and retreat." He said it lays the ground for further advances toward Raqqa, the ISIS group's de facto capital, and Deir el-Zour, an eastern city it largely controls.

During their rule of Palmyra, the extremists demolished some of its best-known artifacts and monuments, including two large temples dating back more than 1,800 years and a Roman triumphal archway.

ISIS also killed scores of people, beheaded the archaeological site's 81-year-old director, Riad al-Asaad, in August after he reportedly refused to divulge where authorities had hidden some of the treasures before the group swept in. The militants also demolished Palmyra's infamous Tadmur prison in the town center, where thousands of government opponents were reportedly tortured.

The Sunni extremist group, which has imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, claims ancient relics promote idolatry and says it is destroying them as part of a purge of paganism - though it is also believed to have been sold off looted antiquities for significant sums of cash.

Speaking to the AP over the phone, Abdul-Karim indicated that there are damages at the two main temples at the archaeological site, the Arch of Triumph and the funeral towers. He added that experts still need "many days" to determine the exact extent of damages.

But he hailed what he described as the "professional way" Syrian troops liberated Palmyra from ISIS, saying that the "renovation work wouldn't be as complicated as we thought" initially.

During the fighting for Palmyra, Syrian forces avoided inflicting additional damage to its monuments, he said.

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Before Palmyra fell to ISIS, authorities were able to rescue more than 400 statues and hundreds of artifacts that were moved to safe areas, he said, but the large statues were left and couldn't be moved.

On Sunday, state TV showed the rubble left over from the destruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, as well as the damaged archway, the supports of which are still standing.

Artifacts inside the city's museum also appeared heavily damaged on state TV. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was decapitated, and the museum's basement appeared to have been dynamited, the hall littered with broken statues.

Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who is now a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, said much of the damages done by ISIS militants to Palmyra's archaeological site was seen on the militants' videos.

"What was unfortunate really was the damage inside the (Palmyra) museum, the many of the pieces that have not been saved, that they (Damascus officials) did not have time or the ability to move," Al-Azm told the AP via Skype. "It seems that a significant amount of damage was inflicted on them."

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Still, state media reported that a lion statue dating back to the second century, previously thought to have been destroyed by ISIS militants, was found in a damaged but recoverable condition.

Abdul-Karim said that ISIS fighters smashed the statues' faces but didn't totally destroy them. "We can renovate them," he said. "Yes, we lost part of the original but we didn't totally lose them."

"All smashed statues can be renovated as they were not totally destroyed," he said.

Syrian military bomb squads worked Monday on removing mines and bombs planted by ISIS across much of Palmyra, including residential areas as well as the historic quarter, according to an official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The Lebanon-based Hezbollah TV stations - the Al-Manar and Al-Mayadeen televisions - which have both reported from inside Palmyra, showed videos of explosions inside the town on Monday, saying that Syrian troops are detonating explosives that are difficult to dismantle.

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