Sun, Mar 27, 2016 - Page 1 News List

Syrian government troops retake parts of Palmyra: rights group, state media

Reuters, BEIRUT

Syrian government forces yesterday advanced into Palmyra on several fronts with support from airstrikes and artillery bombardments, state media and a monitoring group said, while live TV showed waves of explosions inside the city.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described it as the heaviest assault yet in a three-week campaign by the Syrian army and allied militia fighters to recapture the desert city from Islamic State fighters.

Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said Syrian soldiers and allied militias had taken control of one-third of Palmyra, mainly in the west and north, including parts of its ancient Roman-era ruins.

Soldiers were also fighting on a southern front, he said.

State-run TV also said the army was advancing inside Palmyra, recapturing several neighborhoods.

TV footage from the slopes of the medieval citadel, which was seized by the army on Friday and overlooks the city, showed tanks and armored vehicles firing into Palmyra.

Waves of explosions hit buildings and smoke could be seen rising from many locations.

Earlier, the observatory said that Islamic State fighters had launched counterattacks — including car bombings — against advancing soldiers.

The recapture of Palmyra, which the extremist group seized in May last year, would mark the biggest reversal for the Islamic State in Syria since Russia’s intervention turned the tide of the five-year conflict in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

The group, and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, is excluded from a month-long cessation of hostilities agreement that has brought a lull in fighting between the government and rebels battling al-Assad in western Syria.

The limited truce has allowed peace talks to resume in Geneva. However, progress has been slow, with the government and its opponents fundamentally disagreeing on the terms of such a transition, including whether al-Assad must leave power.

Russia has reduced its military presence in Syria, but has strongly supported the Palmyra offensive, carrying out dozens of airstrikes this week and acknowledging that a Russian special forces officer was killed in combat near the city.

Palmyra had a population of 50,000, according to a census more than 10 years ago. Those numbers were swelled hugely by an influx of people displaced by Syria’s conflict, which has raged since 2011, but most fled when the Islamic State took over.

Recapturing the city would open up eastern Syria, where the Islamic State controls most of the Euphrates Valley provinces of Deir ez-Zor and al-Raqqah, to the army.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the death this week of Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, described as the Islamic State’s second-in-command, would hamper the extremists’ ability to conduct operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

He said the US was “systematically eliminating” the Islamic State’s Cabinet, referring also to the killing earlier this month of “Omar the Chechen,” described by Washington as the militants’ defense minister.

“The momentum of this campaign is now clearly on our side,” Carter said.

Additional reporting by AFP

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