Syrian troops push toward Palmyra as Russian airstrikes pound jihadi positions

AFP-JIJI/reuters

Russian helicopters pounded jihadi positions around the ancient city of Palmyra on Tuesday as Syrian troops pressed a ground advance, a monitoring group said.

“Russian helicopters and warplanes, that are likely Russian, are bombarding Islamic State group positions near Palmyra,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

“These strikes have allowed regime troops to advance, and they are now 4 km (2.5 miles) south and west of Palmyra,” he told AFP.

The strikes came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the pullout of the “main part” of his forces from the war-torn country.

A security source in Syria confirmed the monitor’s report.

“The Syrian army, backed by Russian warplane and helicopter strikes, have taken control of a hilltop to the west of Palmyra after a fierce battle against IS, which still holds the city,” he said.

Should the regime retake Palmyra, “it would be an important victory because it would open the way towards the Iraqi border,” he added.

Islamic State seized Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern Syria known as the “Pearl of the Desert,” last May, sending shockwaves across the world.

In September, satellite images confirmed that the Temple of Bel, the main one at Palmyra, had been targeted by Islamic State as part of a campaign to destroy pre-Islamic monuments, tombs and statues it considers idolatrous.

U.N. experts said the main building of the temple plus a row of columns had been destroyed.

The Observatory also reported that 26 civilians had been killed on March 11 when a Russian airstrike hit a bus in the Palmyra region which as on its way from Islamic State-held Raqqa to Damascus.

It was also reported that at least 26 people were killed east of Palmyra on Tuesday as Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes staged attacks near the town a day after Russia started a military withdrawal from Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the casualties occurred during airstrikes along the road between the historic city of Palmyra, called Tadmur in Arabic, and a town to its east, al-Sukhna.

Syrian government forces also made major gains to the west of Palmyra, the Lebanon-based Shiite group Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station reported. It said the Syrian troops were supported by “heavy air cover from Russian jets.”

Last week, the Syrian army backed by Russian airstrikes began a campaign aiming to retake Palmyra from Islamic State to open a road to the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, which is mostly held by the jihadi militants.

The capture of Palmyra and further eastward advances into Deir al-Zor would mark the most significant Syrian government gain against Islamic State since the start of the Russian intervention in Syria’s civil war in September. With Russia’s help, Damascus has already taken back some ground from Islamic State, notably east of Aleppo.

The Observatory said fierce clashes continued between Syrian forces and planes thought to be Russian in areas west of Palmyra.