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Palmyra residents trapped in desert as Syrian officials celebrate victory

Former resident tells MEE that civilians forced into desert by IS are still without shelter a week after recapture of city
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi cuts into a cake iced with the words 'Congratulations on victory' in Palmyra on Thursday (Facebook)

The Syrian intelligence services ordered all officials from Palmyra to return to the war-ravaged city for victory photographs or face arrest, Middle East Eye has learned. 

The photo session went ahead on Thursday despite an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the city, which has seen some civilians take shelter in the desert. 

A former resident with close ties to the city told MEE on Friday that all government officials in Palmyra had received the warning, issued less than a week after pro-government forces and their allies pushed Islamic State out of the modern city and the iconic ancient ruins nearby.

Footage from the frontlines last Sunday showed smoke billowing from Palmyra castle, the hilltop UNESCO heritage site that dates back to the 13th century.

The Syrian military hailed the city’s recapture as a “mortal blow” to IS, which had overrun it last May, with President Assad celebrating “the efficiency of the Syrian army and its allies in fighting terrorism”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDhBdeRDvMs

The advance was seen as a symbolic victory for Assad’s forces after IS’s occupation of the city, which had caused global concern over the fate of its priceless ruins.

Since then, however, civilians have not been allowed to return to their homes, with local activists accusing pro-government forces of going from street to street looting houses.

Translation: Members of the Syrian army…stealing the contents of civilian homes after they recapture Palmyra

“Nobody is allowed to go back,” the former resident told MEE, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The regime is asking people to go back for just one day, as they are sending television [crews] to film the return of the civilians.”

A source told local news site al-Hal that the government had “issued a leaflet to all its employees in Homs on Wednesday telling them to return to Palmyra on Thursday so it looks like security has returned to the city during an official visit” by the governor of Homs province.

Syria’s state news agency SANA on Friday published a video showing the governor of Homs, Talal al-Barazi, embracing soldiers during a parade in Palmyra on Thursday.

Photos from Barazi’s Facebook page show him taking a tour around the city surrounded by soldiers and young people waving Syrian flags, and cutting into a cake iced with the words “Congratulations on victory”.

Meanwhile, the former resident told MEE that no civilians have returned to the city long-term, with many still sheltering in the desert outside of Palmyra.

Local journalist Mohammed Taha told Radio Monte Carlo last week that, ahead of the Syrian army advance, IS had ordered all civilians to leave the city.

“[IS] moved them to Wadi al-Ahmar in the desert, 15km from the city, and left them there without shelter, food or water.

“They have just been left lying on the ground, with no cover but the sky.”