"Islamic State" jihadists have been forced to pull out of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra just hours after re-entering it, a monitor says. But some reports say the militants have again retaken all or part of the city.
Air strikes by Russian warplanes forced "Islamic State" (IS) militants to withdraw from the central Syrian city of Palmyra at dawn on Sunday, shortly after they had re-entered the city following a days-long offensive, according to a Britain-based group monitoring the Syrian conflict.
"Intense Russian raids since last night forced IS out of Palmyra, hours after the jihadists retook control of the city," said Rami Abdel Rahman from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information from a network of activists within the country.
Abdel Rahman said many jihadists had been killed in the raids, but could give no precise toll. He said the army had brought reinforcements into the city and that the militants were now fighting in orchards on Palmyra's outskirts.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Russian warplanes had conducted 64 air raids during the operation to repel IS, killing more than 300 militants.
Later reports by the Observatory however said the militants had regrouped and recaptured the city after the Syrian army withdrew to the south. Another activist group, Palmyra Coordination, said IS had retaken areas on the outskirts and Palmyra castle.
The IS-linked Amaq news agency also reported that the jihadists had taken back "full control" of the city.
In May last year, the extremist Sunni Muslim group captured Palmyra along with other towns in Homs province, and inflicted severe damage on many of its ancient sites, which are part of UNESCO's World Heritage list. IS considers all religious statues and images to be idolatrous and has destroyed huge numbers of ancient monuments both in Syria and Iraq in a campaign to establish a "caliphate" across the Middle East.
Having been driven out of the city in March of this year, the militants began an offensive to retake Palmyra and nearby towns just days ago. The group re-entered the city on Saturday.
For more than a year, Russia has been giving military support from the air to troops loyal to Moscow ally President Bashar al-Assad, as Assad tries to put down a rebellion that began in 2011. Extremist groups such as IS have taken advantage of the instability created by the insurgency to capture territory in Syria.
tj/jlw (AFP, Reuters)
Have a look on this picture gallery from March 28, a day after Palmyra was first recaptured from IS