ISIL loses another key town to Syrian regime

Extremists withdraw from Qaryatain, their main base in central Syria which can now be used for attacks against them near the Iraqi border.

Syrian soldiers patrol the town of Al Qaryatain in central Homs province on April 3, 2016. AFP
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Damascus // Syrian troops on Sunday seized the key ISIL bastion of Al Qaryatain a week after expelling them from Palmyra.

The push into the town took place under the cover of Russian air strikes, state media said, and dealt another setback ISIL in Syria.

An activist group that monitors the Syrian civil war said government forces are in control of most of the town after ISIL fighters withdrew to its eastern outskirts.

The capture of Qaryatain deprives ISIL of a main base in central Syria and could be used by government forces in the future to launch attacks on ISIL-held areas near the Iraqi border.

Qaryatain used to be home to a sizeable Christian population and lies midway between Palmyra and the capital, Damascus. Activists said last summer that Qaryatain had a mixed population of around 40,000 Sunni Muslims and Christians, as well as thousands of internally displaced people who had fled from the nearby city of Homs. Many of the Christians fled the town after it came under ISIL attack.

Dozens of Qaryatain’s Christians and other residents have been abducted by the extremists. While the town was under ISIL control, some were released, others were made to sign pledges to pay a tax imposed on non-Muslims.

While ISIL extremists blew up and destroyed some of the world’s most precious relics at Palmyra’s archaeological sites during their 10-month reign there, the ancient Saint Eliane Monastery near Qaryatain was also bulldozed and destroyed shortly after ISIL took the town in August.

Christians make up about 10 per cent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million people.

The Syrian army command said troops have “restored security and stability to Qaryatain and farms surrounding it.” The statement, read by an army general on state TV, said the oil and gas pipelines in the area will be secured and ISIL supply routes between eastern desert and the Qalamoun region will be cut.

A Syrian army general, speaking live from Qaryatain with the Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen TV, said troops are now dismantling bombs placed by extremists and will prepare to launch fresh attacks on areas held by ISIL.

“Fighting was going from one house to another,” another army officer told Al Mayadeen TV also speaking from inside Qaryatain. He added that ISIL had suicide attackers who were trying to block the push by the army into the town.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said intense fighting was underway in Qaryatain as government troops fight to capture all parts of the town. The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman said that ISIL fighters are still in control of small areas east of the town but “are on the verge of collapse.” Mr Abdurrahman added that the extremists are withdrawing toward eastern parts of the mountainous Qalamoun region.

ISIL has suffered major defeats in Syria in recent months amid intense air strikes by Russian warplanes.

Earlier on Sunday, the Observatory reported that fighting in northern Syria the previous day killed several fighters belonging to the Lebanese militant Hizbollah group. Hizbollah has been fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops in Syria’s civil war.

The Observatory said 12 Hizbollah fighters were killed and dozens were wounded in Saturday’s attack by militants led by Al Qaeda’s Syria branch — known as Jabhat Al Nusra — on the northern village of Al Ais.

In southern Lebanon, social media postings on Sunday carried photos of seven Hizbollah fighters said to be among those killed in Al Ais.

Though Jabhat Al Nusra is not part of a US-Russia-engineered truce between the Syrian government forces and Western-backed rebels, the fighting has threated to undermine the ceasefire that has largely held for over a month.

*Associated Press