ISIL advances towards ancient Syrian city of Palmyra

Media allied with ISIL said the militants had seized a strategically located but deserted rocket-launching site, close to an air base less than 60 kilometres from Palmyra.

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BEIRUT // ISIL militants advanced towards Palmyra on Wednesday, threatening to besiege the ancient Syrian city several weeks after losing it to government forces.

The offensive came as a temporary ceasefire in the northern city of Aleppo ticked down to its final hours, threatening to plunge the divided city back into violence. A rocket attack on a government-held neighbourhood late in the afternoon killed at least two people.

Media allied with ISIL said the militants had seized a strategically located but deserted rocket-launching site, close to an air base less than 60 kilometres from Palmyra.

For president Bashar Al Assad’s forces, ISIL’s capture of this site effectively severs a main road linking Palmyra to the regime-controlled T-4 air base and the provincial capital of Homs, threatening government supply routes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group, and other activists confirmed the ISIL advance. It comes after intense clashes with government troops near the T-4 air base, and a week after the extremist group advanced towards natural gasfields to the north.

ISIL-linked Al Bayan radio reported that ISIL militants also seized two government checkpoints guarding the air base and downed a military helicopter to the north of the base. The Britain-based Observatory also reported the downing of the aircraft, saying the fate of its crew remains unclear.

Syrian state media denied reports that the road between Homs and Palmyra had been cut, however.

Syrian troops, with the help of Russian airstrikes, regained control of the world-famous ancient city in March after ISIL had controlled it for nearly 10 months. During its rule, ISIL destroyed many of Palmyra’s relics and displaced its residents.

Meanwhile, an airstrike on a medical centre in ISIL-held territory north of the eastern city of Deir Ezzour killed at least seven people, among them a child, the Observatory said. US, Russian, Syrian, and other air forces are known to conduct raids on ISIL in the area, but it was unclear who was behind the attack on the village of Shaheil.

ISIL’s advance on Palmyra comes despite a partial ceasefire with Syria’s mainstream opposition militias that was intended to allow the government and its international allies to focus their efforts on the extremist group and its rival, Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusrat. That truce, brokered by the United States and Russia, broke down in the northern city of Aleppo.

Nearly 300 people were killed in less than two weeks in Aleppo, in strikes that also targeted hospitals and civilian areas. Human Rights Watch quoted rescue workers as saying that in one airstrike on a hospital in a rebel-held area of the city, 58 civilians were killed, including medical staff and many patients. On the other side, a government-area hospital was hit and at least 20 people were killed in shelling blamed on the rebels.

Last week, airstrikes hit a displaced people’s camp in northern Idlib province, along the border with Turkey, and killed 28 people. The Russian and Syrian governments denied any role.

A partial ceasefire was restored in Aleppo and has been extended twice. The latest truce expires at midnight on Wednesday.

But Syrian state media accused “terrorists” of breaching the truce earlier in the day when a rocket landed on the government-held Seif Al Dawleh neighbourhood, killing two people. The Observatory said three people had died and at least 10 were injured. Government media refers to all armed opposition groups in Syria as terrorists.

In Geneva, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a four-person UN team of investigators that aims to identify possible war crimes and other violations, decried strikes on medical facilities in Aleppo and at the Idlib refugee camp.

The commission noted that the truce has “increasingly deteriorated” and said international humanitarian law requires combatants to distinguish between “lawful and unlawful targets”.

It urged parties to the conflict and states seeking a peaceful resolution to “demand civilian protection measures be taken”.

* Associated Press