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Syrian Forces Advance on Islamic State-Held Palmyra

  • Ken Bredemeier

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gesture as they advance into the historic city of Palmyra in this picture provided by SANA, March 24, 2016.

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gesture as they advance into the historic city of Palmyra in this picture provided by SANA, March 24, 2016.

Syria says its forces have fought their way into Palmyra, the ancient city held for nearly a year by Islamic State insurgents who destroyed many of its Roman-era antiquities.

Syrian state television said Thursday that government troops backed by Russian warplanes pushed into the city. Islamic State fighters used loudspeakers to warn civilians to leave as the fighting intensified.

The state news agency SANA showed Russian planes flying above the city, helicopters firing missiles and soldiers and armored vehicles advancing.

Destruction

Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site known as the "Pearl of the Desert," has been held by Islamic State since May.

The demolition of ancient monuments like this colonnade in the historical city of Palmyra, Syria was targeted by the Islamic State group and among cultural sites destroyed in 2015.

The demolition of ancient monuments like this colonnade in the historical city of Palmyra, Syria was targeted by the Islamic State group and among cultural sites destroyed in 2015.

To widespread condemnation, the insurgents blew up many of the city's world-renown relics, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the iconic Arch of Triumph, and looted centuries-old artifacts.

FILE - An image distributed by Islamic State militants on social media on August 25, 2015 purports to show the destruction of a Roman-era temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

FILE - An image distributed by Islamic State militants on social media on August 25, 2015 purports to show the destruction of a Roman-era temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

The head of Syria's antiquities and museum's agency, Maamoun Abdulkarim, said he hoped the government's advance on the city would end the "nightmare" of last year's Islamic State takeover. He called the fight for Palmyra a "cultural battle for the entire world, and everyone who believes in common human heritage."

The Syrian broadcast said fighting is occurring near one of the archaeological sites. One soldier said he had a message for the Islamic State fighters: "You will be crushed under the feet of the Syrian Arab Army."

Dwindling population

Palmyra's one-time population of 70,000 dwindled to 15,000 under Islamic State rule. The extremists' harsh tactics, including public beheadings of supposed opponents, sparked the exodus.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors fighting in Syria with frontline accounts from inside the country, said most of the residents fled before the government assault this week. "Only those too poor to flee stayed behind," the monitoring group said.

If forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regain control of Palmyra, it would be a strategic as well as symbolic victory, since the city is the gateway to the vast desert extending from central Syria to the Iraqi border.

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