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Syrian Forces Seize Town of Qaryatain From Islamic State

Syrian soldiers explain the military operation to clear Palmyra to journalists, in the ancient city of Palmyra in the central city of Homs, Syria, April 1, 2016. Syrian forces announced Sunday they retook the town of Qaryatain from Islamic State fighters.

Syria said Sunday its forces seized another town from Islamic State militants, Qaryatain, in the central part of the country, a week after retaking the historic city of Palmyra.

State media said the seizure of Qaryatain, with support of Russian airstrikes, gives the government a strategic victory, securing oil and gas routes between the Damascus area and oilfields in eastern Syria.

But the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors fighting in Syria from accounts inside the country, said the government claim was premature, even as it said Islamic State fighters "are on the verge of collapse."

The monitoring group said the jihadists still controlled the eastern and southeastern parts of Qaryatain, but that some of its fighters had started retreating to the nearby mountainous region.

Qaryatain was once the home to a sizable population of Christians, dozens of whom have been abducted by the extremists. Some were released, but others were forced to sign a pledge to pay a tax imposed on non-Muslims.

The advance on Qaryatain, held by the militants since late August, comes a week after Syria seized the ancient city of Palmyra, where Islamic State fighters destroyed centuries-old historic relics.

In Qaryatain, Islamic State fighters bulldozed the Saint Eliane Monastery.

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