Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces are on the verge of retaking the city of Palmyra. The move could strengthen Assad's position as the latest round of peace talks aimed at ending Syria's five-year war continue.
A Syrian military source confirmed to AFP the recapture of a key fort in the city by Syrian troops Friday, after several days of heavy fighting.
"Our armed forces, in coordination with the popular defense forces, have taken control of the ancient Palmyra citadel after inflicting many losses in the ranks of the terrorist group Daesh," Syrian state television said, using another acronym for the terror group calling itself the "Islamic State."
The army has also reportedly cut off the main Palmyra-Deir Ezzor highway leading to the Iraqi border, according to a report from Reuters citing a military source.
The AFP source said a sandstorm that began on Thursday had reduced visibility, but that most of the ancient city - overrun by IS in May 2015 - had been retaken.
Syrian state TV reported that Assad loyalists had been fighting mainly near the archaeological sites on the southwestern edge of the town. It showed live footage of airstrikes targeting positions near the fort.
Beirut-based television channel Al-Mayadeen, broadcasting from the edge of Palmyra, showed a low-flying jet carry out three airstrikes against what it said were IS fighters withdrawing from the old citadel back into Palmyra.
"In the southwest, the army has liberated the district of hotels and restaurants as well as the Valley of the Tombs," the country's antiquities chief Maamoun Abdelkarim told AFP.
Only about 15,000 of Palmyra's 70,000 residents are thought to have stayed inside Palmyra since it fell to IS.
A strategic moment
A month ago, a ceasefire covering much of Syria was agreed between the army and non-jihadi rebels, brokered by the US and Russia.
Russian aircraft carried out 146 strikes on "terrorist targets" in the Palmyra area between Sunday and Wednesday, killing 320 "terrorists" and destroying six command posts and two ammunition dumps, Moscow said.
Palmyra's recapture would be a major symbolic victory for Assad, as whoever holds the city also controls the swathe of desert from central Syria to the Iraqi border.
The advance in Palmyra comes a day after Iraqi troops launched an offensive to retake the major Iraqi city of Mosul, IS' nominal capital since an offensive by the jihadists in June 2014.
The international perspective
Moscow is Assad's main ally, while Washington and other Western countries back those trying to overthrow him during the five-year civil war that has killed 250,000 people.
At a meeting in Moscow on Thursday, John Kerry and Vladimir Putin reportedly agreed to intensify the drive for a political settlement in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key Assad ally, last week announced a partial withdrawal of troops from Syria's war amid negotiations in Geneva between the Assad government and the armed opposition.
Unless Assad agrees to step down, there are concerns that the Syrian opposition could drop out of peace negotiations, which UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said he was aiming to restart on April 9.
Pearl of the desert
Palmyra, known as the "Pearl of the Desert," was overrun by IS last May. The group has since blown up UNESCO-listed temples and looted relics that dated back thousands of years. IS claimed in September to have destroyed the Temple of Bel, which UNESCO described as one of the best-preserved and most important first-century religious edifices in the Middle East.
UNESCO chief Irinia Bokova welcomed the push to recapture Palmyra. "For one year, Palmyra has been a symbol of the cultural cleansing plaguing the Middle East," Bokova said.
jbh/msh (Reuters, AFP)