′Islamic State′ battles to hold Palmyra | News | DW | 24.03.2016
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'Islamic State' battles to hold Palmyra

Pro-Assad forces have launched a fierce bid to recapture Syria's ancient UNESCO heritage site, Palmyra, from jihadis. Meanwhile, John Kerry and Vladimir Putin met in Moscow to discuss the Syrian president's fate.

Syrian state TV said Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces have entered the historic town of Palmyra.

Its reporter embedded with Assad loyalists said that by midday Thursday the fighting was concentrated near the archaeological sites on the southwestern edge of the town.

"The army is 300 meters from the entrance of Palmyra," an unnamed Syrian military source told the AFP news agency.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says government troops are facing tough resistance from IS extremists as they try to penetrate the town's eastern and southern limits.

Only some 15,000 of Palmyra's 70,000 residents have remained inside Palmyra since its fall to IS.

"The vast majority had already fled - only those too poor to flee stayed behind," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Syrien Tempel Baal Shamin in Palmyra Sprengung

This undated photo released August 25, 2015, on a social media site used by Islamic State militants shows smoke from the detonation of the 2,000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Syria's ancient caravan city of Palmyra.

The fate of Assad

The focus of Syria's war has shifted to Palmyra since 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.

In Moscow, US Secretary of State John Kerry held a rare meeting with Putin to discuss ways to ease Assad from power - a key demand of the Syrian opposition.

"We both know that more needs to be done in terms of both the reduction of violence and the flow of humanitarian goods," Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Saudi-backed opposition alliance High Negotiations Committee (HNC), reiterated demands that Assad be required to step down as part of a political solution to the conflict.

"We hope Russia uses its leverage to ensure that Geneva III and UN Security Council resolution 2254 is implemented," Kodmani said, referring to the latest talks in Geneva.

The spokeswoman also noted that the sentencing of Radovan Karadzic, an ex-leader of Bosnian Serbs, for war crimes and genocide gives Syrians hope for the execution of international law.

"The trial of Karadzic gives us hope. There is international justice out there for the big criminals of Syria as well," Kodmani said.

The Geneva peace talks are proving sluggish though diplomats on all sides say they are committed to ending Syria's devastating conflict.

ls, jar/msh (AFP, Reuters)

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