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A surprise Russian concert has been played in the recaptured Syrian city of Palmyra. The Mariinsky orchestra was led by conductor Valery Gergiev, a long-time supporter of President Vladimir Putin.
Russia used orchestral culture on Thursday to win international kudos after helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recapture the UNESCO World Heritage Site from "Islamic State" (IS) militants.
The event, made public just hours before it began and dubbed "Prayer for Palmyra," drew locals as well as Russian and Syrian military personnel and included a video address from Putin.
Assad's forces retook the city in late March, backed by Russian airstrikes. Russian troops then demined the historic part of Palmyra, where IS had blown up ancient relics during their brief occupation.
Mariinsky orchestra in amphitheater
Thursday's program performed by Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky orchestra included Bach's Chaconne for Solo Violin, a cello piece by Rodion Shchedrin and Sergei Prokofiev's First Symphony.
Putin's cellist friend, Sergei Roldugin, who came for world attention recently amid the Panama Papers leaks, also performed against the stunning backdrop.
Protest against 'barbarism'
Gergiev said the concert was a protest against barbarism exhibited by IS militants who damaged Palmyra's artifacts and who used the Roman-era amphitheater to execute prisoners.
Putin addressed the concert audience via a video link from his Russian Black Sea residence at Sochi, saying the world needed to rid itself of terrorism.
He said the concert as a "sign of gratitude" to the victims of terror and those who fought to deliver modern civilization from the "terrible scourge of international terrorism."
Syrian tour guide Anwar Al-Omar, who sat in the audience, said while Russia could help rebuild the ancient town he was downbeat about its prospects in the long-term.
"I am pessimistic. It will be difficult to bring tourists back," he said.
Reminiscent of Ossetia
Thursday's performance was reminiscent of a concert conducted by Gergiev in August 2008 in self-proclaimed state of Ossetia, his home region, after Russia defeated the Georgian army.
Gergiev is one of the world's best-known conductors but has faced backlash in the West for his strongly pro-Kremlin views and his tours have sometimes been interrupted by protestors.
He also conducted a charity concert in Tokyo for victims of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear tragedy and led a charity concert tour to raise funds for victims of Russia's Beslan school massacre in 2004.
ipj/sms (Reuters, AP, AFP)