Leading Russian musicians staged a classical concert in the ancient theatre of Syria’s ravaged Palmyra in a show by the Kremlin to herald its successes in the war-torn country.
Famed conductor Valery Gergiev led Saint Petersburg’s celebrated Mariinsky orchestra through pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Sergei Prokofiev and Rodion Shchedrin in front of a crowd of Russian soldiers, government ministers and journalists.
Cellist Sergei Roldugin — a personal friend of President Vladimir Putin recently caught up in the scandal over the leaked Panama Papers — played a solo against the backdrop of the Roman amphitheatre where jihadists from the Islamic State group staged mass executions less than a year ago.
“Thank you for today’s amazing humanitarian act — the concert in a Palmyra liberated from terrorists,” Putin said in an address from Russia broadcast at the start of the concert.
“I see it as a sign of gratitude, of remembrance, of hope,” Putin said.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond slammed the concert as “a tasteless attempt to distract attention from the continued suffering of millions of Syrians” as air strikes blamed on regime forces killed at least 28 civilians in a camp for the displaced on the border with Turkey.
“It shows that there are no depths to which the regime will not sink. It is time for those with influence over Assad to say enough is enough,” Hammond added, in a veiled reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s key ally Russia.
Syrian troops backed by Russian air strikes and special forces on the ground recaptured UNESCO world heritage site Palmyra from Islamic State group fighters in March, delivering a major propaganda coup for both Damascus and Moscow.
Russian army sappers said last month they had demined the ancient site — known as the “Pearl of the Desert” — where jihadist fighters blew up ancient temples and looted relics.
The Kremlin has shipped foreign journalists to the concert as it basks in the retaking of Palmyra, one of the most significant achievements since it launched a bombing campaign, criticised by the West, to support Assad in September.
– ‘Wounded but not killed’ –
Putin said that he saw the concert as a sign “of hope not just for the rebirth of Palmyra as a cultural asset for the whole of humanity, but for seeing modern civilisation rid itself of this terrible scourge of international terrorism”.
Mikhail Pyotrovsky, the director of Russia’s Hermitage Museum, told journalists at the scene that “Palmyra is injured but she has not been killed” and pledged help in restoring it.
Sitting in the audience, Syrian tour guide Anwar Al-Omar told AFP that while he thought only 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.
Gergiev is one of the world’s best known conductors but has faced backlash in the West for his strongly pro-Kremlin views, with his tours sometimes interrupted by protestors.
Roldugin, the godfather of Putin’s eldest daughter, was revealed as being at the head of a vast offshore empire that controls some $2 billion (1.75 billion euros) by the Panama Papers leaks in April but has been fiercely defended by the Kremlin strongman.
The concert in Palmyra was not the first that Gergiev has conducted in a place where the Russian military carried out controversial operations.
In 2008 the Ossetian native conducted a concert in Tskhinvali, the main city in separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia that was heavily damaged in the short Russian-Georgian war that year.
Gergiev also conducted a charity concert in Tokyo for victims of the Fukushima tragedy in 2012 and led a charity concert tour to raise funds for victims of Russia’s Beslan school massacre in 2004.
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