The loss of Palmyra on Sunday amounts to one of the biggest
setbacks for the jihadist group since it declared a caliphate in
2014 across large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian army said the city, home to some of the most extensive
ruins of the Roman Empire, would become a "launchpad" for operations
against Islamic State strongholds in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, further
east across a vast expanse of desert.
Syrian state media said on Monday that Palmyra's military airport
was now open to air traffic after the army cleared the surrounding
area of Islamic State fighters.
There were clashes northeast of Palmyra between Islamic State and
forces allied to the government, supported by Syrian and Russian air
strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which
monitors the war.
Air strikes, believed to be Russian, also targeted the road running
east out of Palmyra toward Deir al-Zor, it said.
Although most of the Islamic State force fled Palmyra on Sunday,
there were still some militants in the city, the Observatory said.
Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman also said most residents fled
before the government offensive and it had not heard about any
On Sunday six explosions were heard triggered by triple car bombings
inside the city and its fringes by the jihadist group. Three
militants with suicide belts also blew themselves up, inflicting
unspecified casualties among army forces and allied troops, the
Syrian state-run television broadcast from inside Palmyra, showing
empty streets and badly damaged buildings.
Abdulrahman said 417 Islamic State fighters were so far known to
have died in the campaign to retake Palmyra, while 194 people were
killed on the Syrian government side.
Russia's intervention in September turned the tide of Syria's
five-year conflict in Assad's favor. Despite Moscow's declared
withdrawal of most military forces two weeks ago, Russian jets and
helicopters carried out dozens of strikes daily over Palmyra as the
army thrust into the city.
In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad said
Russia's air support had been essential in taking back Palmyra, and
said the city would be rebuilt.
Russia said it would assist with securing and removing landmines in
Palmyra following the campaign, but is still showing signs of its
partial withdrawal from Syria.
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Three heavy attack helicopters have left Moscow's Hmeimim air base
in Syria for Russia, Russian state TV channel Rossiya-24 reported on
Islamic State's ejection from Palmyra came three months after it was
driven out of the city of Ramadi in neighboring Iraq, the first
major victory for Iraq's army since it collapsed in the face of an
assault by the militants in June 2014.
Islamic State has lost ground elsewhere, including the Iraqi city of
Tikrit and the Syrian town of al-Shadadi in February, as its enemies
push it back and try to cut links between its two main power centers
of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
On Friday the United States said it believed it had killed several
senior Islamic State militants, including Abd ar-Rahman al-Qaduli,
described as the group's top finance official and aide to its
leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
There was fierce fighting around the Islamic State-held town of
Qaryatain on Monday, 100 km (60 miles) west of Palmyra, which the
Syrian government has also been trying to retake. Islamic State
seized Qaryatain last August after taking Palmyra.
Syrian television broadcast footage from inside Palmyra's museum on
Sunday showing toppled and damaged statues, as well as several
smashed display cases.
Syria's antiquities chief said other ancient landmarks were still
standing and pledged to restore the damaged monuments.
"Palmyra has been liberated. This is the end of the destruction in
Palmyra," Mamoun Abdelkarim told Reuters on Sunday. "How many times
did we cry for Palmyra? How many times did we feel despair? But we
did not lose hope."
(Editing by Nick Tattersall/Mark Heinrich)
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