ISIS Captures Most of Palmyra in Dramatic Reversal

Government soldiers were fleeing the city, activist says. Militants had nearly encircled the city and entered its northern and northwestern neighborhoods. Syrian army says it sent reinforcement.

A member of the Syrian pro-government forces carries an Islamic State (ISIS) group flag as he stands on a street in the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016.
A member of the Syrian pro-government forces carries an Islamic State (ISIS) group flag as he stands on a street in the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016. AFP

Islamic State fighters have captured most of Palmyra in central Syria after a surprise assault on Saturday, a monitoring group said, in a dramatic reversal months after the extremist militia lost the ancient city to government forces.

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The activist-run Palmyra Coordination network said the militants had nearly encircled the city and entered its northern and northwestern neighborhoods. The group, which maintains contacts inside the city, said ISIS fighters were approaching the city's UNESCO heritage site as well.

Turkish-based activist Osama al-Khatib, who is originally from Palmyra, said government soldiers were fleeing Palmyra.

"The army as an institution has dissolved," he said. Some soldiers and militiamen remain in the city, along with 120 families who have not been able to leave, Khatib said. He spoke to The Associated Press from Gaziantep, Turkey.

Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leads a concert in the amphitheatre of the ancient city of Palmyra on May 5, 2016.
AFP, VASILY MAXIMOV

"There is strong fighting on all sides," he reported. "There is no exit except through a corridor to the west."

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were fears for the lives and safety of civilians inside the city because many of them were pro-government supporters. Rebels and the war monitor said with the exception of the southern parts, most of the city was now in the hands of the militants who had waged an attack on several fronts.

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights said the militants had entered Palmyra after they had taken strategic heights near the city and captured the northern part of the city and major silos and mountains around it. 

At the same time, ISIS said it has shot down a Syrian warplane near Palmyra. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that a government jet crashed in the area. The activist-run Palmyra Coordination Committee said the jet was a MiG-23. 

The Syrian army said it has sent reinforcements to Palmyra. The group had taken over areas to the northwest and southeast of the city in a surprise assault, and clashes continued on Saturday, the army said in a statement.

A rebel commander from the Jaish al-Mujahideen group based in the Aleppo countryside said the ISIS attack was forcing the Syrian government to divert troops from Aleppo, where the army and its allies are on the verge of a major victory against rebels.

The army did not specify where reinforcements were brought from.

Islamic State's assault, which began late on Thursday, has killed dozens of Syrian soldiers and quickly taken over grain silos and control of some oil and gas fields around Palmyra, monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

A statement by Islamic State's Amaq online news agency said the militants had pushed towards Palmyra airport on the town's eastern outskirts, which Russian forces have been using to support the Syrian army.

A U.S.-led coalition which is separately fighting against the jihadist militants said late on Friday it had carried out 168 ISIS oil tanker trucks near Palmyra in a large air raid.

The militants destroyed several of the city's famed ancient Roman monuments and executed its archaeological director after sweeping into the city in July 2015 and holding it for 11 months.