Daesh Driven Out of Syria’s Ancient Palmyra City

Tourists take pictures at the ancient Palmyra theater in the historical city of Palmyra, Syria in this April 18, 2008 file photo. Russian warplanes were said to have launched heavy strikes on the Islamic State-held city of Palmyra on March 10, 2016 in what may be a prelude to a Syrian government bid to recapture the historic site lost to the jihadist group last May. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/Files

By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT, March 27 – Syrian government forces recaptured Palmyra on Sunday, state media and a monitoring group said, inflicting a significant defeat on the Daesh group which seized the city last year and dynamited its ancient temples.

Syrian television quoted a military source saying the army and its militia allies took complete control of the city and were clearing mines and bombs laid by the militants.

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 Daesh force had pulled out and retreated east, leaving Palmyra under President Bashar al-Assad’s control.

For government forces, the recapture of Palmyra opens up much of Syria’s eastern desert stretching to the Iraqi border to the south and Daesh heartland of Deir al-Zor and Raqqa to the east.

It follows a three-week campaign by the army and its allies on the ground, backed by intensive Russian air strikes, aimed at driving Daesh back.

Russia’s intervention in September turned the tide of Syria’s five-year-old conflict in Assad’s favour. Despite its announcement that it was pulling out most military forces two weeks ago, Russian jets and helicopters carried out dozens of strikes daily over Palmyra at the height of the clashes.

Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said 400 Daesh 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.

The loss of Palmyra comes three months after Daesh fighters were driven out of the city of Ramadi in neighbouring Iraq, the first major victory for Iraq’s army since it collapsed in the face of an assault by the militants in June 2014.

Daesh has lost ground elsewhere, including the Iraqi city of Tikrit last year and the Syrian town of al-Shadadi in February. The United States said the fall of Shadadi was part of efforts to cut Islamic State’s links between its two main power centres: the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

The Observatory said around 180 government soldiers and allied fighters were also killed in the campaign to retake Palmyra, which is home to some of the most extensive ruins of the Roman empire.

Daesh militants dynamited several monuments last year, but Syria’s antiquities chief told Reuters on Saturday that other ancient landmarks were still standing.

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