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Syrian army, backed by Russian jets, retakes ancient Palmyra from Islamic State

Beirut: Syrian troops backed by Russian jets completed the recapture of the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group on Thursday, the Kremlin and the army said, in another blow to the jihadists.

Bolstered by air strikes and ground troops from their ally Moscow, Syrian forces battled through the desert for weeks to reach Palmyra.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

The oasis city has traded hands several times during Syria's six-year civil war and become a symbol of Islamic State's wanton destruction of priceless cultural heritage in areas under its control.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin of Palmyra's recapture, a Kremlin spokesman told news agencies in Moscow.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said that the jihadists had totally withdrawn from the desert city but not before mining several areas.

"The Syrian army is still clearing neighbourhoods of mines and has not spread out into the whole city yet," said its director, Rami Abdel Rahman.

An army statement carried on state news agency SANA said its forces had "regained control over Palmyra and surrounding territory after a series of successful military operations".

Islamic State has suffered a string of setbacks since taking over swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, and its two main strongholds of Mosul and Raqa both face assaults by forces backed by a US-led coalition.

The jihadists first seized Palmyra in May 2015 and began to systematically destroy and loot the Unesco world heritage site's monuments and temples.

They were driven out in March 2016 but recaptured the city in December when the government was focused on seizing rebel-held east Aleppo.

Before Islamic State first entered the city, Palmyra boasted temples, colonnaded alleys and elaborately decorated tombs that were among the best preserved classical monuments in the Middle East.

But many of the structures have been destroyed and much of the heritage looted for sale on the black market.

Moscow's support has been key in the Syrian army's Palmyra push, and its warplanes continued to bombard Islamic State positions inside and near the city today, the Observatory reported.

A decades-old ally of Damascus, Moscow launched an air campaign in September 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

After losing ground in the early years of the war, Assad's regime has regained significant territory — including by pushing rebel forces out of second city Aleppo last year — thanks in large part to Russian support.

Published Date: Mar 03, 2017 07:52 AM | Updated Date: Mar 03, 2017 07:52 AM

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