Syria regime forces at entrance to Islamic State-held Palmyra
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Syria regime forces at entrance to Islamic State-held Palmyra

Jihadists using suicide bombers in effort to halt advance of pro-government troops

A partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometers (133 miles) northeast of Damascus, Syria,  March 14, 2014. (AFP/Joseph EID)
A partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometers (133 miles) northeast of Damascus, Syria, March 14, 2014. (AFP/Joseph EID)

BEIRUT — Syrian pro-government forces advanced to the edge of the famed ancient city of Palmyra on Wednesday, eyeing a major symbolic victory over the Islamic State jihadist group, a monitor said.

“The regime forces are now two kilometers (a little more than a mile) away on the south side and five kilometers (three miles) away on the west side,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

IS seized the city dubbed the “Pearl of the Desert” in May last year, sending shock waves around the world as the group demolished some of the most treasured monuments of its UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.

Regime forces launched an offensive to retake the city at the start of the month backed by heavy Russian air strikes.

IS has fiercely resisted the advance, killing at least 26 pro-government fighters on Monday alone, the Observatory said.

Image from an Islamic State video showing the mass execution of Syrian soldiers on the stage of the amphitheater in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria shortly after the group captured the city on May 21, 2015. (screen grab: YouTube)
Image from an Islamic State video showing the mass execution of Syrian soldiers on the stage of the amphitheater in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria shortly after the group captured the city on May 21, 2015. (screen grab: YouTube)

Aamaq, an IS-linked website, claimed that 30 troops were killed in an attack by a jihadist suicide bomber.

The recapture of Palmyra would be a strategic as well as symbolic prize for the regime.

Whoever controls the oasis city also controls the surrounding desert — an area of some 30,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles) extending to the Iraqi border.

That would cut IS’s area of control from some 40 percent of Syrian territory to 30 percent, according to the Observatory.

Global concern for Palmyra’s magnificent ancient ruins spiked in September 2015, when satellite images confirmed that IS had demolished the famed Temple of Bel as part of its campaign to destroy pre-Islamic monuments it considers idolatrous.

The jihadists have waged a sustained campaign of destruction against heritage sites in areas IS controls in Syria and Iraq and in mid-August last year beheaded Palmyra’s 82-year-old former antiquities chief.

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