Syrian army advances into ISIL-held ancient city of Palmyra

The extremist group overran Palmyra last May and has since blown up Unesco-listed temples and looted relics that dated back thousands of years.

Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad gesture as they advance into the historic city of Palmyra in this picture provided by SANA on March 24, 2016. SANA/Handout via Reuters
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DAMASCUS // Syrian troops backed by Russian warplanes on Thursday advanced into the ancient city of Palmyra, which has been under ISIL control for nearly a year.

“Regime forces have entered the Hayy Al Gharf neighbourhood in the south-west of Palmyra. They are advancing very slowly because of mines planted by IS,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

“The regime is also advancing from the north of the city.”

A Syrian military source confirmed the advance.

“The army has entered from the north-west after seizing control of part of the Valley of the Tombs,” he said. “The clashes, which are ongoing, are fierce.”

It came after Syrian troops managed this week to capture hills and high ground around the city, famed for its archaeological site and Roman ruins.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive for days in an attempt to recapture the city from ISIL. The extremist group overran Palmyra last May and has since blown up Unesco-listed temples and looted relics that dated back thousands of years.

Earlier in the day, state television broadcast footage of one of its reporters, embedded with the Syrian military, speaking from the entrance of Palmyra.

The reporter said that as of noon, the fighting was concentrated near the archaeological site on the south-western edge of the town.

Gunfire and explosions echoed as the reporter spoke. The television station also aired footage of soldiers walking and SUVs driving near a building that appears to have been a hotel.

An unnamed Syrian soldier told the station he had one message for ISIL: “You will be crushed under the feet of the Syrian Arab Army.”

Meanwhile, ISIL has called on civilians still living in Palmyra to leave, the observatory said.

Only some 15,000 of Palmyra’s 70,000 residents stayed on under ISIL rule, which has seen atrocities including public beheadings in the city’s amphitheatre.

“The vast majority had already fled – only those too poor to flee stayed behind,” said Mr Abdel Rahman.

ISIL has lost more 200 fighters since the government campaign to retake Palmyra began 17 days ago, the observatory added. It did not have figures for government losses.

The city’s recapture would be a strategic as well as symbolic victory for president Bashar Al Assad, since whoever holds it also controls the vast desert extending from central Syria to the Iraqi border. It would also be a victory for Mr Al Assad’s ally, Russia.

Russia withdrew most of its forces and aircraft from Syria last week after a months-long bombing campaign that succeeded in turning the tide of the war again in Mr Al Assad’s favour.

As the fighting continued, Syria’s antiquities chief hailed the “imminent” recapture of Palmyra and vowed to rebuild the famed monuments destroyed by the extremists. “I have feelings of fear and joy,” said Maamoun Abdelkarim. “I am so happy the liberation is imminent and that the nightmare is nearly over, before it is too late, before the total destruction of the ancient city.”

Three months after capturing Palmyra, ISIL beheaded the city’s 82-year-old former antiquities chief, Khaled Al Asaad, and launched a campaign of destruction against its most treasured monuments.

First, they destroyed the ancient shrine of Baal Shamin. In September, they demolished the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, recognised as a gem of classical architecture.

In October, they blew up the Arch of Triumph, which dates from around 200AD. “I think this 10-month period has been the worst of our lives,” Mr Abdelkarim said.

“How many times have tears welled up in our eyes because we felt powerless to save a civilisation that was threatened

with being erased before our eyes?

“I fear finding even worse destruction than the demolition of the two temples, of the dozen tower tombs and the Arch of Triumph.”

Mr Abdelkarim pledged that all monuments destroyed by ISIL would be restored with expert help.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press