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Syria state media reports Palmyra retaken from 'Islamic State'

Regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes have taken full control of Palmyra after a three-week battle, state media report. A monitoring group says hundreds of extremists have been killed.

Syrian television quoted an unnamed military source as saying the army and its militia allies took "complete control over the city of Palmyra" on Sunday.

"After heavy fighting during the night, the army is in full control of Palmyra - both the ancient site and the residential neighborhoods," a military source told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Over the past few days, government forces have recaptured several districts of the ancient oasis city, which is

home to several Roman-era ruins.

Regime troops have been trying for three weeks to retake the town, which was seized by the "Islamic State" (IS) militant group in May.

IS in retreat

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that there was still gunfire in the eastern part of the city on Sunday morning but that most IS fighters had retreated further east.

Palmyra citadel

The ancient city was captured by IS in May

AFP reported that army sappers were defusing mines and bombs planted by IS in the ancient ruins.

IS lost at least 400 fighters in the battle for Palmyra, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.

"That's the heaviest losses that IS has sustained in a single battle since its creation," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Most ruins intact

IS' seizure of the Palmyra ruins had led to fears that the UNESCO world heritage site, which is also known as the "Pearl of the Desert," would be left in ruins.

The group blew up two of the site's treasured classical temples,

its triumphal arch and a dozen tower tombs.

Syrian army weapons

Syrian forces have tried to retake the city for three weeks

It also used Palmyra's ancient amphitheater as a venue for public executions, including the beheading of the city's 82-year-old former antiquities chief.

His replacement told the Reuters news agency that many of the ancient landmarks were still standing.

Despite Moscow pulling most of its military out of Syria over the past two weeks,

Russian warplanes have continued to hit IS targets,

conducting more than 40 combat sorties on Friday and Saturday, targeting "158 terrorist" positions, according to the Russian defense ministry.

Closing in on Raqqa

Analysts said the recapture of Palmyra has opened up much of Syria's eastern desert, making it easier for regime troops to move on to IS' de facto capital of Raqqa in the north of Syria.

IS has lost more ground in recent months after it was driven out of the Iraqi cities of Ramadi, Tikrit and the Syrian town of al-Shadadi.

nm/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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