Middle East Updates Syrian Army Preparing for to Retake Palmyra From ISIS, Official Says

Iraqi forces regain ground from ISIS east of Ramadi; Taliban fighters launch wave of attacks on Afghan police.

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A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the castle of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the castle of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Credit: AFP

For Saturday's updates, click here

Latest updates:

7:32 P.M. U.S., allies conduct 17 airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

The United States and its allies conducted 17 airstrikes in Iraq and 11 strikes in Syria since Saturday against Islamic State militants, the U.S. military said on Sunday.

The air strikes in Iraq included four near Ramadi, which was captured by Islamic State forces a week ago, the statement said.

In Syria, strikes hit Islamic State positions near Kobani and near Al Hasakah, the U.S. military said. (Reuters)

6:34 P.M. ISIS claims to shoot down Syrian military helicopter

A Syrian military helicopter crashed Sunday at the northern air base of Kweiras, killing all of its crew, state TV said, as an activist group said it was shot down by Islamic State militants.

The TV report quoted an unnamed military official as saying that the helicopter crashed Sunday as a result of a technical problem while taking off. The report did not say how many crew members were onboard at the time of the crash.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State militants who have been laying siege to the base for months shot down the helicopter. The Observatory said one crew member was killed while the fate of the others remained unclear.

Kweiras military air base is in the northern province of Aleppo and is close to the town of al-Bab, which is held by the Islamic State group.

The Islamic State group posted a statement on a militant website claiming responsibility for downing the Syrian helicopter. The statement said "soldiers of the caliphate around the Kweiras air base shot down the helicopter at dawn with anti-aircraft guns."

It said all on board the helicopter were killed including two colonels. (AP)

5:05 P.M. Saudi-led coalition strikes throughout Yemen, killing several civilians

Security officials say fighting is raging on in Yemen, with airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition hitting rebel targets in multiple cities, including the capital, while street battles in the city of Taiz have killed several civilians including four from the same family.

They say the clashes in Taiz between rebels and forces loyal to the exiled president saw errant artillery rounds repeatedly hitting residential areas, killing at least eight civilians. They added that air raids over the past day have struck over 30 military bases.

Resident Fahmy Abdul Qader said his cousin's wife and three of her children were killed by shelling that hit the family home overnight in Taiz.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief journalists. (AP)

4:47 P.M. Libyan government war planes strike ship off Sirte port

Warplanes from Libya's official government attacked a ship off the Libyan port of Sirte on Sunday, the air force commander said.

"Our jets warned an unflagged ship off Sirte city, but it ignored the warning," Saqer al-Joroushi told Reuters. "We gave it a chance to evaluate the situation, then our fighting jets attacked the ship because it was unloading fighters and weapons," he added.

An oil official said the ship was actually a tanker which had been carrying 25,000 tons of oil. (Reuters)

3:33 P.M. Syrian army preparing for counterattack on ISIS at Palmyra, official says

A Syrian official says the army is deploying troops in areas near the ancient town of Palmyra in apparent preparation for a counterattack to retake the city from the Islamic State group.

Gov. Talal Barazi of the central province of Homs, which includes Palmyra, told The Associated Press Sunday that IS members have "committed mass massacres in the city of Palmyra" since they captured it on Wednesday.

He said IS fighters took civilians, including women, to unknown destinations.

Barazi said "there is planning, God willing, for a military action in the surroundings of Palmyra" adding it is not yet clear when the attack will be launched. (AP)

2:00 P.M. Report: ISIS killed 400 in Palmyra, mostly women and children

Islamic State fighters have killed at least 400 people in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra, most of them women and children, Syrian state television said on Sunday.

It said it was quoting residents inside the city, which is known as Tadmur in Arabic and is home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theatre.

Opposition activists have said on social media that hundreds of bodies were in the streets of the city after it was seized by the ultra hardline group on Wednesday. They said they were believed to be government loyalists. (Reuters)

1:25 P.M. Iran agrees to grant UN 'managed access' to nuclear sites, negotiator says

11:50 A.M. Iraqi forces regain ground from Islamic State east of Ramadi

Iraqi forces regained ground from Islamic State militants in western Iraq on Sunday, advancing on the city of Ramadi one week after it fell to the insurgents.

A police major and a pro-government Sunni tribal fighter in the area said they had retaken the town of Husaiba al-Sharqiya, about 10 km east of Ramadi, with the help of Shi'ite paramilitaries. (Reuters)

10:25 A.M. At least 10 Afghan police officers killed in Taliban assault

Taliban insurgents attacked police checkpoints Sunday in volatile southern Afghanistan, killing at least 10 officers in the ongoing assault, authorities said.

Taliban fighters attacked 10 police checkpoints in the province's Sangin district, said the director of Helmand province's Joint Coordination Office. Taliban fighters had captured three checkpoints and continued to surge forward in their assault, he said.

Afghan security forces have been battling the Taliban in Helmand province for almost three months after launching an operation aimed at showing their strength ahead of the insurgents' annual warm weather offensive. Since that offensive began April 24, the Taliban have launched a number of attacks across many parts of Afghanistan.

Police checkpoints are regular targets as they are often poorly manned and vulnerable. The high number of casualties suffered by police, who often bear the brunt of the fight against the Taliban without the same resources as the army, has damaged morale and created an impression of battlefield domination by the Taliban.

The offensive comes as NATO and U.S. troops ended their combat mission in the country at the end of last year, leaving the responsibility for the fight against the Taliban solely on the shoulders of local Afghan forces.

May 23, 2015

11:29 P.M. Saudi Interior Ministry says mosque bomber belonged to Islamic State

The suicide bomber who killed 21 worshippers in a Shi'ite mosque on Friday was a wanted Islamic State militant, the kingdom's Interior Ministry said on Saturday.

"Abdul Rahman Saleh Qashimi was wanted by the security authorities for belonging to a terrorist cell, which received guidance from the Islamic State terrorist organisation abroad. It was exposed late last month and 26 of its members have been arrested to date," the ministry said in a statement. (Reuters)

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