Syrian Government Forces Regain Full Control of Palmyra From ISIS Militants

Some 400 Islamic State fighters reportedly killed in battle from historic city, leaving large portions of ISIS territory strategically open for assault.

Syrian pro-government forces gesture next to the Palmyra citadel on March 26, 2016.
AFP

REUTERS - Syrian government forces recaptured Palmyra on Sunday, state media and a monitoring group said, inflicting a significant defeat on the Islamic State group which had controlled the desert city since May last year.

Syrian television quoted a military source saying the army and its militia allies took "complete control over the city of Palmyra."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there was still gunfire in the eastern part of the city on Sunday morning but the bulk of the Islamic State force had pulled out and retreated east, leaving Palmyra under President Bashar Assad's control. 

Assad responded to the news, saying it showed the success of the army's strategy in combating terrorism, Syrian television reported.

"The liberation of the historic city of Palmyra today is an important achievement and another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism," it quoted Assad as telling a visiting French delegation, including parliamentarians.

For government forces, the recapture of Palmyra, following a three-week campaign by Syrian government forces backed by intensive Russian air strikes, opens up much of Syria's eastern desert stretching to the Iraqi border to the south and Islamic State heartland of Deir al-Zor and Raqqa to the east. 

Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said 400 Islamic State fighters died in the battle for Palmyra, which he described as the biggest single defeat for the group since it declared a caliphate in areas of Syria and Iraq under its control in 2014. 

Palmyra is also home to some of the most extensive ruins of the Roman empire. Islamic State militants dynamited several monuments last year, but Syria's antiquities chief told Reuters on Saturday that other ancient landmarks were still standing. 

The fall of Palmyra to ISIS militants last year had raised concerns world over, and the destruction the extremists subsequently embarked upon sent shock waves through archaeological circles and beyond. It was also a big blow to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces pulled out with apparently little fighting.

On Thursday, Syrian state TV broadcast footage of its reporter, embedded with the Syrian military, speaking live from the entrance of Palmyra and saying that as of midday, the fighting was concentrated near the archaeological site on the southwestern edge of the town.

Cracks of gunfire and explosions echoed as the reporter spoke. The TV also aired footage showing soldiers walking and SUVs driving near a building that appeared to have been a hotel.

An unnamed Syrian soldier told the station he had one message for ISIS: "You will be crushed under the feet of the Syrian Arab Army."