Isis video claims to show abandoned Russian base in Palmyra

Isis release video showing abandoned base with significant weaponry left behind

Islamic State fighters search weapon boxes in a Russian base in what is said to be Palmyra, Syria in this still image taken from video uploaded to social media on Tuesday. Photograph: Amaq News Agency/Handout via Reuters

Islamic State fighters search weapon boxes in a Russian base in what is said to be Palmyra, Syria in this still image taken from video uploaded to social media on Tuesday. Photograph: Amaq News Agency/Handout via Reuters

 

A video released by Amaq, Islamic State’s news agency, appears to show a hasty Russian retreat from a forward base near the Syrian city of Palmyra, recaptured by Isis over the weekend, with half-eaten bowls of soup, bank cards and a significant amount of weaponry left behind.

Palmyra’s recapture comes just seven months after a Russian orchestra held a symbolic concert in its amphitheatre to celebrate its liberation from the terrorist group.

The video showed Isis fighters looking around a deserted base made up of a few field tents. Most significantly, if the video is genuine, it appears that the Russian army left fighting equipment at the base. The footage shows fighters opening boxes containing assault rifles, ammunition and other weaponry.

US army general Stephen Townsend warned on Wednesday that Russian weapons seized by Isis could pose a threat to US forces, saying that armour and potentially air defence equipment could have fallen into the group’s hands.

“Look at the war booty,” says one of the Isis fighters in the video. “This is the Syrian sovereignty they are talking about. This is the gate of the Russian base in the city of Tadmur [the Arabic name for Palmyra]. God allowed us to conquer it today. Tomorrow, we will conquer Russia.”

Authenticity questions

The video has not been independently verified and it is unclear exactly when it was taken. The Palmyra citadel is visible in one of the shots. The Russian defence ministry has not commented on the authenticity of the video, nor is it known how many Russian troops were stationed at the base and for how long.

Much of the year-long Russian mission in Syria has been shrouded in secrecy and publicly released information carefully curated. A video aired on Russian television at the weekend showed Russian special forces active inside the country.

Russian television has portrayed the restoration of government control over Aleppo as a liberation from terror.

Isis took control of Palmyra over the weekend after days of intense fighting and Russian airstrikes.

“The catastrophe has happened, I am in absolute shock,” Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, told the Guardian on Sunday in a phone interview. “I am losing hope, it looks like we have lost the city.”

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, told Russia Today television that “the timing of their attack is related to what is happening in Aleppo”.

Igor Konashenkov of the Russian defence ministry claimed on Monday that the militants were able to attack Palmyra because US-led coalition air forces had stopped bombing Raqqa, Isis’s Syrian stronghold.

“Taking advantage of the fact that active military operations of the United States and the international coalition near Raqqa were suspended until spring, Daesh [ISIS]redeployed significant forces to storm Palmyra,” he said.

Surprising attack

Konashenkov claimed around 5,000 Isis militants took part in the attack on Palmyra, which surprised analysts given the group has been in retreat in recent months. Despite a sustained Russian air bombardment, the takeover was successful.

It marks the second time Isis has taken over Palmyra. Last May, the grouping’s militants laid siege to the city and then stormed it after Syrian military forces retreated. The militants blew up many of its ancient buildings, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the Arch of Victory, along with other priceless artefacts.

They also killed Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s long-serving leading archaeologist.

Syrian forces retook the town in March, and in early May, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led an orchestra of musicians from his Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in a symbolic concert, with journalists and Russian military operatives in attendance.

Putin addressed the concert by video link, saying it was to celebrate the liberation of Palmyra and the defeat of “international terrorism”.

– Guardian service