Children among ISIL victims found in Palmyra mass grave

Sweep of liberated ancient town also reveals thousands of bombs planted by extremists.

Syrian soldiers examine ISIL’s destruction at the historical Bel Temple in Palmyra after retaking the ancient city town from the extremist group. AP Photo / April 1, 2016.

Damascus // Syrian troops have found a mass grave containing the bodies of 42 people killed by ISIL in Palmyra.

The grave contained the bodies of officers, soldiers, members of the pro-regime militia and their relatives. Twenty-four of the victims were civilians, including three children, a military source said.

The bodies, which were found on Friday, have been taken to a military hospital in the provincial capital Homs and some have been identified.

The find came as troops continued to clear the historic town of explosives laid by ISIL before it retreated last Sunday.

A Syrian officer said the extremist militants had planted thousands of mines that they planned to set off simultaneously as the army moved in.

“All the government buildings are rigged in a network connected to the Daesh leadership headquarters,” the officer said. “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.”

Main streets and side roads had been rigged with explosives weighing up to 50 kilograms, he said. More than 3,000 have been safely detonated so far.

He did not say why the militants 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.

De-miners from Russia, an ally of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, will join the clearing operation in Palmyra in a few days, the defence ministry in Moscow said.

ISIL killed executed at least 280 people in Palmyra during their nearly 10-month occupation, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor which confirmed the discovery of the mass grave.

Nearly a week after it was liberated by Syrian regime forces backed by Russian air strikes, few of Palmyra’s up to 70,000 residents have returned.

“People fear reprisal by the regime, and also the mines planted all over the city by ISIL,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

“In addition, many houses were flattened by Russian air strikes before Palmyra was reclaimed.”

The recapture of Palmyra, a Unesco World Heritage site, was a symbolic and strategic coup for Mr Al Assad, who has weathered a five-year civil war with support from Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hizbollah militia. The Syrian army has said the takeover of the town would allow it to extend operations against ISIL to the east and around Raqqa, the extremists’ de facto capital.

About 70 kilometres to the west, Syrian troops on Saturday pounded the ISIL-held city of Sukhna, which the army wants to take back to consolidate its grip on Palmyra.

“If the regime takes Sukhna, it will use it as a launching pad for an operation against Deir Ezzour province” in eastern Syria, along the Iraqi border, which is mostly controlled by ISIL, Mr Abdel Rahman said.

A five-week-old ceasefire imposed by the United States and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, has seen Damascus focus its firepower on ISIL, as the truce does not apply to them or to Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

At least 40 mostly foreign ISIL members, including 18 child soldiers, were killed in raids on Thursday on a village in Deir Ezzour province, the Observatory said.

It was one of the single highest tolls that ISIL has suffered in a single strike since it emerged in Syria in 2013, the monitor said.

ISIL has lost a string of high-ranking commanders in the past few weeks, mainly to strikes by the US-led coalition which launched a campaign against the group in 2014.

On Wednesday, a drone strike near Raqqa, most likely by the US-led coalition, killed Abu Al Haija, a Tunisian commander summoned by ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi from Iraq.

On Friday, the Pentagon warned that Baghdadi himself, who in 2014 appointed himself “caliph” of captured territory in Iraq and Syria, would eventually be hunted down and killed.

“Just like we found his mentor, [Abu Musab] Al Zarqawi and killed him. Just like we found the grand master of terrorism, Osama bin Laden, we killed him. We are going to find Baghdadi, and he will taste justice,” military spokesman Col Steve Warren said.

The US military is also working with “dozens” of Syrian rebels under a revamped train-and-equip programme implemented after a much-criticised initiative collapsed last year, Warren said.

While the truce has largely held, there have been reports of violations. The Observatory said the regime launched air strikes on a rebel-held town east of Damascus on Thursday, killing left 33 people including 12 children.

Qatar condemned the raids on Saturday, warning that Syrian air strikes could “torpedo” the fragile ceasefire.

In Aleppo province, Jabhat Al Nusra and allied rebels seized the town of Al Eis which overlooks a road linking second city Aleppo to Damascus, the Observatory said.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters