Russia-backed Syrian forces recapture Palmyra from ISIS
SYRIAN troops backed by Russian forces recaptured the famed ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) yesterday in a major victory over the extremist group.
Army sappers were defusing mines and bombs planted by ISIS in Palmyra's ancient ruins, a Unesco world heritage site, where the group sparked a global outcry with the systematic destruction of treasured monuments after capturing the city in May last year, a military source said.
The recapture of Palmyra by troops of President Bashar al-Assad opens up much of Syria's eastern desert, stretching to the Iraqi border to the south and the ISIS heartland of Deir al-Zor and Raqqa to the east, reported Reuters.
ISIS lost at least 400 fighters in the battle for the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
On the government side, 188 troops and militiamen were killed.
"That's the heaviest loss that ISIS has sustained in a single battle since its creation" in 2013, the director of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, told Agence France-Presse.
ISIS fighters pulled out of Palmyra to retreat towards the towns of Al-Sukhnah and Deir al-Zor to the east.
The Observatory said the pullout had been ordered by ISIS high command.
The loss of Palmyra came three months after ISIS fighters were driven out of the city of Ramadi in Iraq.
ISIS has lost ground elsewhere, including the Iraqi city of Tikrit last year and the Syrian town of Al-Shadadi in February.
The United States said the fall of Al-Shadadi was part of efforts to cut ISIS' links between its two main power centres: the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
On Thursday, the Iraqi army announced the launch of an offensive to recapture Mosul, held by the group since June 2014.
During its occupation of Palmyra, ISIS had blown up two of its treasured temples, its triumphal arch and a dozen tower tombs in a campaign of destruction that Unesco described as a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court.
The group used Palmyra's ancient amphitheatre as a venue for public executions, including the beheading of the city's 82-year-old former antiquities chief.
Russian forces, which intervened in support of long-time ally Assad last September, have been heavily involved in the offensive to retake Palmyra, despite a major drawdown last week.
Russian warplanes conducted more than 40 combat sorties in just 24 hours from Friday to Saturday, targeting "158 terrorist" positions, according to the Russian defence ministry.
Elsewhere in Syria, a ceasefire in areas held by the government and non-ISIS rebels has largely held since Feb 27, in a boost to diplomatic efforts to end a five-year war that has killed more than 270,000 people.