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Syria army retakes desert town from IS: state media

© AFP/File | Islamic State group fighters shattered the stone sarcophagus of Syriac Catholic Saint Elian at the entrance to his monastery during their first occupation of the Syrian desert town of Al-Qaryatain in 2015-16

DAMASCUS (AFP) - 

Syrian troops and militia retook the desert town of Al-Qaryatain from the Islamic State group on Saturday ending a three-week-long fightback by the jihadists, state media said.

It was the latest in a string of reverses for IS in Syria this month that on Tuesday saw US-backed forces capture its emblematic bastion Raqa.

The jihadists had seized Al-Qaryatain on October 1 in a surprise counteroffensive against the Homs province town which they had lost to Russian-backed government forces in April last year.

"Units of the Syrian Arab Army in cooperation with allied forces have restored security and stability in the town of Al-Qaryatain after eliminating the Daesh terrorists," the state SANA news agency reported, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said that more than 200 jihadists had pulled out of the town during the night, withdrawing into the vast desert that stretches all the way to the Iraqi border.

There was no immediate word on the fate of the town's residents during IS's three-week reoccupation.

Al-Qaryatain was a symbol of religious coexistence before the civil war broke out in 2011, with some 900 Christians among its population of 30,000.

But during their first eight-month-long occupation of the town in 2015-16, the Sunni Muslim extremists of IS repeatedly targeted its Christian minority.

IS abducted 270 Christians, transporting them around 90 kilometres (55 miles) into the desert and locking them up in an underground dungeon. They were freed 25 days later.

The jihadists also destroyed parts of a monastery in the town and reduced a fifth-century mud brick church to rubble using explosives and bulldozers.

Government forces are engaged in twin Russian-backed offensives against IS, mopping up the last pockets it still holds in the desert and pushing down the Euphrates Valley towards the Iraqi border in the east.

© 2017 AFP