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Pro-government forces set to retake Syrian city of Palmyra from 'IS'

Assad's forces are on the verge of retaking the UNESCO site from the so-called "Islamic State." This largely symbolic move comes as international peace talks aimed at resolving the five-year conflict reach a key phase.

Clashes have reportedly been intense around the symbolically important city in northeastern Syria. Government forces are in control of a nearby hill, helped by air cover from Syrian and Russian warplanes, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Washington and Moscow were instrumental in the partial - and fragile - ceasefire which started on February 27.

The truce does not cover areas held by the "Islamic State" (IS) or the al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, thus allowing the regime to launch an offensive to retake Palmyra at the start of the month backed by Russian air strikes.

"The regime forces are now two kilometers (1.24 miles) away on the south side and five kilometers away on the west side," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The army and allied militia are now advancing towards a road junction "after eliminating the last terrorist Daesh groups there," state news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying, using an alternative name for IS.

From the 'Palmyra that remains' exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne.

From the 'Palmyra that remains' exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne.

The troops were reportedly slowly dismantling mines planted along the access route to the city by jihadis after taking Palmyra in May 2015, SANA reeported.

The army is also reportedly closing in on the IS-held town of Qaryatain in central Syria, also backed by Russian airstrikes in their advances, Homs governor Talal Barazi said.

A strategic negotiating chip

The recapture of the city would be a strategic prize for the regime as negotiations go on in Geneva and Moscow to resolve the five-year conflict. Whoever controls the oasis city controls the surrounding desert, an area of about 30,000 square kilometres reaching the Iraqi border. The Assad regime wants to open the road to the mostly IS-held eastern province of Deir al-Zor.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to the Russian capital and is scheduled to meet President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Thursday, with Syria a key issue on the agenda.

After IS seized the city last May it

started demolishing some of the most treasured monuments

of the city's UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, including the more than 2,000-year-old Baalshamin Temple.

The city was a major center of the ancient world as it lay on the caravan route linking the Roman Empire with Persia and the east. Situated about 210 kilometers northeast of Damascus, it drew some 150,000 tourists a year before it became engulfed by Syria's civil war.

jbh/msh (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)

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