Islamic State retakes ancient Syrian city of Palmyra

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ISIS militants in Palmyra. File photo

ARA News

Homs – Islamic State (ISIS) militants recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra on Sunday, after heavy clashes with the Syrian Army. Activists and military sources confirmed the rout, reporting that the army had been forced to withdraw under fire.

“The army withdrew after the clashes reached the city center and it became impossible for them to push ISIS back,” local media activist Abas al-Omar reported.

Syrian regime forces were obliged to evacuate their headquarters in Palmyra, heading westward toward the Doua District and Tiyas Airbase.

According to al-Omar, ISIS had “continued shelling the army’s positions inside Palmyra with mortars and heavy artillery for hours, causing large losses in the army ranks.” Dozens of soldiers were killed on Sunday and a number of others remain unaccounted for, likely taken as prisoners.

Russia had supported the Syrian Army in Palmyra, with airstrikes and logistical support but their efforts were apparently insufficient to save the city.

ISIS first took over Palmyra in May 2015, following  a protracted battle with Syrian regime forces. The Islamic State’s occupation was exceptionally brutal, even by the standards of Syria’s 5-year-long conflict.

ISIS published images of their jihadists massacring civilians and destroying ancient monuments, arguing that the monuments were idolatrous and locally worshiped.

In August 2015, satellite images confirmed the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UN slammed the destruction of the Palmyran temple, describing it an ignominious  “war crime.”

In March, Russian-backed troops were able to reassert control over Palmyra’s downtown neighborhoods after ISIS extremists retreated towards the city’s eastern periphery.

Syrian Army Losing Ground To ISIS in Homs

While the rapid defeat of Palmyra’s defenders surprised military analysts, the Islamic State has been on the offensive in eastern Homs Governorate for months. On Saturday, Islamic State (ISIS) militants seized control of several sub-districts.

ISIS jihadists initiated the clashes by storming the military outposts near al-Mahr oilfield. The jihadists then shelled the army’s local headquarters with mortar and artillery fire, forcing its defenders to withdraw towards Tiyas Airbase.

“At least 19 regime soldiers were killed in Saturday’s offensive,” media activist Amro al-Hussein told ARA News in Homs. “The army was forced to retreat from the Ertiwaziyah District and al-Burj Hill.”

According to al-Hussein, “ISIS is now in control of both locations.” ISIS also seized three military checkpoints in eastern Homs Governorate after dislodging the army.

ISIS has repeatedly tried to storm the fortified hilltops which abut the al-Mahr oilfield, employing VBIEDs and suicide squads. However, in the past, their movements were disrupted by Russian airstrikes, which targeted the jihadists’ fighting positions and vehicles.

The Islamic State recently brought reinforcements to Homs’ eastern countryside. Their immediate objectives are to isolate the Deir ez-Zor pocket, conquer Palmyra and create strategic depth. If successful, the extremist group with likely push on to Homs city.

Reporting by: Haytham Mustafa | Source: ARA News

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