Updated: March 24, 2016 7:56:33 pm
Backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian government forces today pushed into the ancient town of Palmyra that has been held by the Islamic State group since May, state TV reported, as an Iraqi military spokesman announced the start of a long-awaited military operation to recapture the northern city of Mosul from IS militants.
The advance on Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site, came after the troops managed this week to capture several hills and high ground around the town, famed for its priceless archaeological site and Roman ruins. Syrian troops have been on the offensive for days in an attempt to capture the town.
The fall of Palmyra to IS militants last year had raised concerns world over, and the destruction the extremists subsequently embarked upon sent shock waves through archaeological circles and beyond.
It was also a big blow to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad whose forces pulled out with apparently little fighting.
Today, Syrian state TV broadcast footage of its reporter, embedded with the Syrian military, speaking live from the entrance of Palmyra and saying that as of midday, the fighting was concentrated near the archaeological site on the southwestern edge of the town.
Cracks of gunfire and explosions echoed as the reporter spoke. The TV also aired footage showing soldiers walking and SUVs driving near a building that appears to have been a hotel.
An unnamed Syrian soldier told the station he had one message for the Islamic State group: “You will be crushed under the feet of the Syrian Arab Army.”
Recapturing the town would be a significant victory for Syria’s army and its Russian allies. Russia withdrew most of its forces and aircraft from Syria last week after a months-long bombing campaign that succeeded in turning the tide of the war again in President Bashar Assad’s favour.
However, Turkey-based activist Osama al-Khatib, who is originally from Palmyra, denied that Syrian troops had entered the town. He said they were still on the edge of Palmyra and that the video seen on Syrian state TV shows the area about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Palmyra.
Earlier in the day, Gov Talal Barazi told The Associated Press from the nearby city of Homs that the Syrian army has determined three directions to storm Palmyra and was clearing all roads leading into the town of mines and explosives.
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