Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes have retaken the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State, according to activists and state media, dealing a crucial symbolic and strategic defeat to the militants.
“This is a significant achievement, and fresh proof of the efficiency of the Syrian army and its allies in fighting terrorism,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said during a meeting with a French parliament delegation in Damascus.
The Syrian armed forces said Sunday the takeover of Palmyra represents a “fatal” blow to the militants, who seized the city ten months ago and destroyed many of the famed monuments that had stood for nearly 2,000 years.
The fighting in Palmyra had intensified in recent days as Syrian forces pushed to close their three-week offensive.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict, said the remaining Islamic State fighters retreated to the east toward Deir Ezzor. The militants control an uninterrupted string of territory extending north from Deir Ezzor through their de facto capital in Raqqa to the Turkish border, and also to the south of Iraq.
By seizing Palmyra, the Syrian government opened up the 100 kilometers of desert between there and Deir Ezzor.
The Syrian army said it will now use Palmyra as a “central base to broaden operations” against Islamic State in several areas, including Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
Syrian troops on Sunday continued to dismantle booby traps and other explosives left by the IS fighters, according to activists and state media.
The Observatory said 400 Islamic State militants and 180 government troops and allied soldiers died in the battle for Palmyra, adding that clashes continued Sunday in some parts of the city.
Palmyra, coined as the “bride of the desert,” is a UNESCO world heritage site that used to attract tens of thousands of tourists every year.
Islamic State took the city from government forces in a matter of days in May 2015 and later demolished several Roman-era monuments as part of their pattern of destroying what they consider idolatrous worship.
The takeover of Palmyra is the latest in a series of setbacks for Islamic State. Iraq’s army three months ago drove the extremist group out of the city Ramadi in neighboring Iraq. The Iraqi army also announced this week the start of a major offensive to retake the city of Mosul.