Syria forces advance into Palmyra amid heavy fighting | News | DW | 26.03.2016
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Syria forces advance into Palmyra amid heavy fighting

The Syrian army has taken over several districts in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, with Russian support. The assault is the biggest yet to capture the city, parts of which were destroyed by IS fighters last year.

Explosions could be heard and smoke seen around Palmyra on Saturday, as Syria's armed forces were engaged in heavy fighting to defeat terrorists of the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS). President Bashar al-Assad's army seized three neighborhoods inside the city, also known as "bride of the desert."

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the offensive was the biggest yet to recapture the city. Observatory head Rami Abdulrahman said Syrian soldiers and allied militia had taken control over one-third of Palmyra, mainly in the west and north. Syrian media and Arab television channels also confirmed the news.

Russian troops were part of the operation although the country had withdrawn some of its forces from Syria. Russian news agencies said their jets had made 40 sorties around the ancient city in the last 24 hours. It was reported that 158 "Islamic State" (IS) targets were hit and more than 100 militants were killed.

The strike took place during an international ceasefire between Assad's forces and opposing militia. IS and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front are not part of the truce, which has helped aid agencies deliver humanitarian help to towns and villages under siege.

Palmyra's recapture marked the biggest defeat yet for IS in the Middle Eastern country and could help forces gain access to eastern Syria. IS controls most of the territory in the Euphrates valley, including the provinces of Deir al-Zor and Raqqa.

Palmyra to be reconstructed

The militants seized Palmyra last summer, destroying the temples of Bel and Baal Shamin in the ancient city, considered nearly two millennia old. The United Nations described the act as a war crime.

On Saturday, Syria's head of antiquities, Mamoun Abdelkarim, said his government would try and restore the temples, including an arch and funeral towers that the extremists destroyed in the world heritage site.

"We will rebuild them with the stones that remain, and with the remaining columns," Abdelkarim told Reuters in Damascus, adding that his team would "bring life back to Palmyra."

News of the Syrian army's advancement comes a day after US officials said their forces had killed IS' number two leader, Abdul-Rahman al-Qaduli. Al-Qaduli was believed to be the group's "finance minister" and close to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

mg/rc (AP, Reuters)

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