The Syrian army recaptured on Friday the citadel of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) group, nearly a year after the jihadists overran the ancient city, state television said citing a military source.
"Our armed forces, in coordination with the popular defence forces, have taken control of the ancient Palmyra citadel after inflicting many losses in the ranks of the terrorist group Daesh," the report said, using another name for the IS group.
On Thursday, UNESCO's chief welcomed the offensive to liberate Palmyra, which he described as a "martyr city".
The Syrian army earlier this month launched a concerted offensive to retake Palmyra, which the ultra-hardline Islamist militants seized in May 2015, to open a road to the mostly IS group-held eastern province of Deir al-Zor.
State television reported that Syrian troops had entered the city on Thursday. State-run news channel Ikhbariya broadcast images from just outside the desert city and said government fighters had taken over a hotel district in the west.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said Thursday that the army had advanced into the hotel district just to the southwest of the city and reached the start of a residential area, after a rapid advance the day before brought the army and its allies right up to its outskirts.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have also made gains to the north of the city, state media and the Observatory said.
A soldier interviewed by Ikhbariya said the army and its allies would press forward beyond Palmyra.
"We say to those gunmen, we are advancing to Palmyra, and to what's beyond Palmyra, and God willing to Raqqa, the centre of the Daesh gangs," he said, referring to Islamic State's de facto capital in northern Syria.
The state news agency SANA showed warplanes flying overhead, helicopters firing missiles, and soldiers and armoured vehicles approaching Palmyra.
SANA also said that the Syrian army was dismantling bombs and mines laid around Palmyra.
Civilians began fleeing after IS group fighters told them via loudspeakers to leave the centre as fighting drew closer, the Observatory said. The Observatory monitors the war using a network of sources on the ground.
Kerry in Moscow
The capture of Palmyra and advances further eastwards into Deir al-Zor would mark the most significant Syrian government gain against the IS group since the start of Russia's military intervention last September.
With Russia's help, Damascus has already taken back some ground from the IS group, notably east of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and commercial hub before the war.
A US-led coalition, which is conducting air strikes in Syria and Iraq against the IS group, said it hit IS group targets near Palmyra on Wednesday.
This was the first coalition strike in the Palmyra area since March 4, around the time Syria began an offensive to take back Palmyra.
Before that there were two strikes at the end of January.
The IS group took over Palmyra in May and between July 1 and March 5 the coalition conducted 15 strikes in and around Palmyra, according to data collated by Reuters from the Combined Joint Task Force.
"Since September 2014 the coalition has conducted over 3,650 air strikes in Syria. Many of those strikes have directly supported counter-(IS) forces in Syria," said a US Defence Department spokesman. "There is no US military or Coalition cooperation with either the Assad government nor the Russians."
News of the Syrian army's advance came as US Secretary of State John Kerry met President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in an atmosphere that was noticeably more amiable than past meetings, reflecting new diplomacy the two Cold War superpowers have championed in recent weeks.
Both men expressed hope for more progress towards ending the fighting.
In Geneva, where the first peace talks involving Assad's government and his foes began this month, the opposing sides were expected to sign on to a UN document reflecting some initial common ground.
The aim was to move towards discussing the divisive question of a political transition in Syria when the talks resume next month.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2016-03-24