A Syrian monitor and the Russian Defense Ministry say more than 60 Russian airstrikes have forced Islamic State fighters to pull out of the ancient central Syrian city of Palmyra Sunday, not long after the extremists fought their way into the city.
“Intense Russian raids since last night forced IS out of Palmyra, hours after the jihadists retook control of the city,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the British-based monitor group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory said fighting continues just outside the city.
A Russian Defense Ministry statement said Russian warplanes conducted 64 airstrikes against “positions, convoys and advancing reserves of militants” on the famed desert city that is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
The ministry statement said, “Over the past night, Syrian government troops with active support of the Russian air force thwarted all terrorist attacks on Palmyra.”
Russia said it killed 300 militants who “actively used car bombs with suicide bombers, armored vehicles and rocket artillery.” The ministry said 11 tanks and 31 vehicles were destroyed.
Extremists enter city
Islamic State extremists fought their way into the ancient central Syrian city of Palmyra on Saturday, monitors said, after two days of intense fighting with government forces.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors and reports on Syria's long-running civil war, said the IS advance had reached as far as a key hospital, after oil fields and strategic outposts near the city fell to IS fighters in recent days.
The extremist push in Homs province came nine months after militants were driven from the city by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies, in a counteroffensive touted at the time by Syrian military officials as a "fatal blow" to the jihadist organization.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad had not commented on the Palmyra fighting by late Saturday, and no updated casualty figures were immediately available. But monitors said Friday that 50 troops allied with Damascus had been killed in the IS offensive.
Fighting in Aleppo
To the north, monitors reported heavy fighting in southeastern districts of the city of Aleppo, after a two-week offensive by the Russia-backed Syrian army and its Shi'ite allies that has split the city's rebel-held east and left rebel forces in disarray. Witnesses to Saturday's fighting said rebels were holding their ground in the devastated eastern sector.
The observatory reported 24 civilians killed by government ordnance since Friday and said at least nine others had been killed by retaliatory rebel artillery fire into government-controlled sectors of the city during the same period.
In other developments, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the deployment of 200 more military personnel to northern Syria, to help the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the push to capture the IS stronghold of Raqqa.
Carter said the 200 troops would include special forces trainers, advisers and explosive ordnance disposal teams. The new force will join 300 U.S. military personnel already deployed in the north to assist in the push to defeat IS at Raqqa.
The U.S. Central Command tweeted Saturday that the U.S. force would stand ready to "directly assist NATO ally Turkey" in the regional fight against extremist forces.
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with other top diplomats Saturday in an attempt to revive stalled talks with Russia on easing the Aleppo crisis, which has left tens of thousands of civilians in the city's east without food or other supplies.
U.S. and Russian diplomats were holding separate closed-door talks in Geneva at the same time, in an effort to find agreement between Moscow and Washington on the situation in Aleppo.
The Paris talks included foreign ministers from France, Germany, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and a representative of the European Union. France's Jean-Marc Ayrault said they agreed on sweeping aid provisions and a ban on torture and retaliatory killings once the fighting stops.
The French diplomat said the ministers' plan would take hold only if the Syrian government and Russia both agreed to terms of the emerging post-battle plan for Aleppo.