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Syrian army 'retakes' al-Qaraytain near Palmyra from IS

Backed by Russian warplanes, Syrian forces have reportedly regained control of a strategic town near the historic city of Palmyra. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says fighting is still ongoing.

The Syrian army said in a statement on Sunday that, backed by air cover from Syrian and Russian jets, units from the army had "restored security and stability to the town of al-Qaraytain."

The central Syrian city is located around 100 kilometers (62 miles) south-west of Palmyra -

an ancient city that regime forces recaptured from "Islamic State"

(IS) last week. Al-Qaryatain had been held by the Islamist militant group since August 2015, when most of the town's Christian residents were forced to flee.

According to the army's statement, al-Qaraytain is strategically important in the fight against IS, as it secures oil and gas pipelines in the area and cuts off supply routes for IS between the Syrian desert and the region of Qalamoun close to the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Observatory contravenes claim

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Syrian forces were in control of most of al-Qaraytain, but that they were still engaged in fighting to the north and southeast of the city.

"The regime forces have controlled the center of the town, but clashes are still underway in several parts on the outskirts," Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said, adding that IS militants had withdrawn to the eastern side of al-Qaraytain.

Abdel-Rahman said the regime's recapture of al-Qaraytain was "symbolic," as it is the second town to fall after Palmyra. IS has lost significant ground in Syria since September when Russia started an air campaign there in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Coalition in Iraq

Also on Sunday, the US said that IS militant Jasim Khadijah had been killed overnight in coalition drone airstrikes in northern Iraq.

Khadijah was believed to have been responsible for the shelling of a base

used by US troops near the northern Iraqi town of Makhmour

in March. US Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin was killed in the attack and eight others were wounded.

ksb/ng (AP, dpa)

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