Syria army enters ISIL-held Palmyra

Syria army enters ISIL-held Palmyra

BEIRUT – Agence France-Presse
Syria army enters ISIL-held Palmyra

AP photo

Syrian troops backed by Russian warplanes on March 24 advanced into the ancient city of Palmyra, which has been under jihadist control for nearly a year, a monitor and a military source said.

“Regime forces have entered the Hayy al-Gharf neighborhood in the southwest of Palmyra. They are advancing very slowly because of mines planted by IS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)],” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

“The regime is also advancing from the north of the city,” Abdel Rahman said.

A military source confirmed the advance.

“The army has entered from the northwest after seizing control of part of the Valley of the Tombs,” he told AFP.

“The clashes, which are ongoing, are fierce.”

The Syrian army earlier this month launched a concerted offensive to retake Palmyra, which the ultra-hardline ISIL seized in May 2015, to open a road to the mostly ISIL-held eastern province of Deir al-Zor. 

ISIL has blown up ancient temples and tombs since capturing Palmyra, something the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO has called a war crime. The city, located at a crossroads in central Syria, is surrounded mostly by desert. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Russia for talks with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that even though a fragile partial truce in Syria had reduced levels of violence there, he wanted to see a further reduction as well as greater flows of humanitarian aid.

“It’s fair to say three weeks ago there were very, very few people who believed a cessation of hostilities was possible in Syria,” Kerry told Lavrov at the start of their talks in Moscow. 

“The result of that work has produced some progress. There has been a fragile (yet) nevertheless beneficial reduction in violence.”

Peace talks in Geneva between representatives of the Syrian government and opposition are bogged down, and Washington believes that Moscow, closely allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, can nudge Damascus to make concessions.