Syrian planes pound Islamic State around Palmyra; jihadis seize key phosphate mine

AFP-JIJI

Syrian government aircraft carried out intense strikes Monday against the Islamic State group in and around the ancient city of Palmyra after its fall to the jihadis, a military source said.

“The air force struck more than 160 Daesh targets, killing and wounding terrorists and destroying weapons and vehicles equipped with machine guns” on Palmyra’s outskirts and elsewhere in the east of Homs province, the source said.

“We are pursuing Daesh wherever they are,” the source said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“Military operations, including air raids, are ongoing in the area around Al-Suknah, Palmyra, the Arak and Al-Hail gas fields and all the roads leading to Palmyra,” he said.

State television said “more than 50 Daesh terrorists” had been killed in the airstrikes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least four civilians had been killed in the raids, which were the most intense since the jihadis overran the city on May 21.

Dozens of people had also been wounded in the raids, and Islamic State was believed to have taken losses when a military security building was hit, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The strikes targeted several areas of the city, including some close to the city’s famed Greco-Roman ruins, a UNESCO world heritage site, he said.

But so far they had failed to halt the jihadis, who advanced toward Damascus and overran major phosphate mines about 70 km (45 miles) south of Palmyra.

“IS has made further progress on the Tadmor-Damascus highway and grabbed the Khnaifess phosphate mines and nearby houses,” said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground for its reports.

“It has extended its control over larger areas and even greater economic interests,” added the monitor.

The latest mines seized by Islamic State are the second-largest in the country.

In the first half of 2014, the General Company for Phosphate and Mines reported sales of $30 million on production of almost 500,000 tons, down from 2 million tons in 2011.

Syria is considered to have one of the world’s largest phosphate reserves.

“With the suspension of oil exports, phosphates represented one of the last sources of income of the state,” according to Syria Report, an online business weekly.

Islamic State is accused of executing hundreds of people in and around Palmyra since it swept into the oasis city last week after a lightning advance across the desert from its stronghold in the Euphrates Valley to the east.

The Observatory said on Sunday that it had documented the executions of at least 217 people, among them 67 civilians, including 14 children.

Some of those killed had been beheaded, Abdel Rahman said, adding that the jihadis had also taken some 600 people prisoner.

Syrian state media said at least 400 civilians had been killed by Islamic State in Palmyra, most of them women, children and old men.

The pro-government Al-Watan daily reported on Monday that the number of executions had risen to 450.