Syrian regime recaptures ancient Palmyra from IS
Syrian regime troops backed by Russian jets completed the recapture of the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group on Thursday, the Kremlin and the Syrian army said.
The oasis city has traded hands several times during Syria's six-year civil war and become a symbol of IS's wanton destruction of priceless cultural heritage in areas under its control.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin of Palmyra's recapture, a Kremlin spokesperson told news agencies in Moscow, with Russian troops also playing a role on the ground.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said the jihadists had totally withdrawn from the desert city but not before mining several areas.
"The Syrian army is still clearing neighbourhoods of mines and has not spread out into the whole city yet," said its director, Rami Abdel Rahman.
An army statement carried on state news agency SANA said its forces had "regained control over Palmyra and surrounding territory after a series of successful military operations".
IS has suffered a string of setbacks since taking over swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, and its two main strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa both face assaults by forces backed by a US-led coalition.
The militants first seized Palmyra in May 2015 and began to systematically destroy and loot the UNESCO world heritage site's monuments and temples.
They were driven out in March 2016. At that time the Syrian regime used victory in the ancient city to project its self-image as the protector of Syria's diverse cultural history and heritage.
However, having secured a PR victory in the ancient city, it was quickly abandoned as the Syrian regime pursued strategic aims elsewhere.
Palymra once again fell to IS in December 2016 at a time when the Syrian regime was focused on seizing rebel-held east Aleppo, during an assault that has been widely condemned as in gross violation of humanitarian laws governing conflict.
Before IS first entered the city, Palmyra boasted temples, colonnaded alleys and elaborately decorated tombs that were among the best preserved classical monuments in the Middle East.
But many of the structures have been destroyed and much of the heritage looted for sale on the black market.
Moscow's support has been key in the Syrian army's Palmyra push, and its warplanes continued to bombard IS positions inside and near the city on Thursday, the Observatory reported.
A decades-old ally of Damascus, Moscow launched an air campaign in September 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad whose forces are viewed by monitoring groups as responsible for the most civilian deaths of any combatant group fighting in Syria.
After losing ground in the early years of the war, Assad's regime has regained significant territory - including by pushing rebel forces out of second city Aleppo last year - thanks in large part to Russian support.