Russia's military has declared the Syrian site of Palmyra free of explosive devices. It comes as the US expressed concern about Russian military equipment being brought into Syria, and as the Geneva peace talks stall.
Nearly a month after Syrian government forces, with the support of Russian airstrikes, recaptured the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra last month, the ancient site has been declared clear of landmines and explosive devices. Militants with the self-declared "Islamic State" (IS) had blown up temples and looted relics from the site after taking control in May 2015.
In a televised video link from Syria, Yury Stavitsky, the commander of Russia's military engineers, told President Vladimir Putin, "As of today, the tasks to demine the ancient architectural part of Palmyra have been completed in their entirety.
"Now the units of engineers have moved on to demining the residential area of the town of Palmyra and the airport," Stavitsky said, adding that 367 buildings, 40 hectares (99 acres) of land and 9.5 kilometers (5.9 miles) of roads were checked and 1,432 explosive devices destroyed.
There are a further 560 hectares in the modern city that still require demining.
Putin had personally ordered the demining, and the Kremlin has been keen to publicize the operation. The Russian president expressed his thanks during the television broadcast.
"Pass on my gratitude to all the personnel: officers, rank-and-file, those providing security," Putin said. "Thank you very much. I wish you success."
US concerns on military equipment
While Russian troops have been demining Palmyra, the United States said it is concerned by reports that Moscow is moving more military material into Syria.
"We think it would be negative for Russia to move additional military equipment or personnel into Syria. We believe that our efforts are best focused on supporting the diplomatic process," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Thursday at a news briefing in Riyadh where President Barack Obama was attending a summit with Gulf Arab leaders.
Analysts have suggested the Kremlin has changed its military presence in Syria by increasingly relying on helicopters to support the Syrian army.
Military support for a number of rebel groups in Syria has reportedly been channeled through Turkey and Jordan. The efforts have included military training monitored by the US Central Intelligence Agency.
On Friday, United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura is to assess whether peace talks in Geneva can progress. In an interview with French-language Radio Television Suisse (RTS), de Mistura said negotiations would be extended into next week.
The main opposition negotiators are refusing to participate as combatants accuse each other of breaking the six-week-old ceasefire.
Asaad Zoubi, chief negotiator for the main Syrian opposition, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said all its members would have left the peace talks in Geneva by Friday. He said there was little prospect of a resumption of talks without a radical change to the situation on the ground.
Earlier this week, opposition representatives called for more military support for rebels. They declared the truce was over and that talks would not start again until the government stopped committing what it called "massacres."
De Mistura said it was understandable for negotiating parties to still have major differences of opinion on how Syria should move forward.
"There is also lots of diplomatic posturing and it's normal," he said. "That is to say, propose things that are more difficult to accept, leave and come back, leave again and come back. It's also fairly justified, because there are moments when one asks whether the ceasefire is holding."
Yet, when asked whether the talks would continue, he said: "We cannot let this drop. We have to renew the ceasefire, we have to accelerate humanitarian aid."
De Mistura added that over 400,000 people have been killed over the last five years of the Syrian war, putting the total higher than the UN's previous estimate of between 250,000 and 300,000.
jm/sms (Reuters, AFP)