Syria army advances on ISIS in Palmyra
Observatory says regime forces could enter ancient city at any moment
BEIRUT: Syrian army troops backed by warplanes advanced to within several kilometers of Palmyra Thursday, battling ISIS fighters outside the famed ancient city, a monitor said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops were now some 5 kilometers west of the city and engaged in fierce clashes with forces from the extremist group.
“Regime forces could enter the city at any moment, they are not far away and the area between them and the city is desert,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
The Britain-based monitor said the fighting was accompanied by intensive regime airstrikes on the city of Palmyra, which is famed for its ancient ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The group said civilians in Palmyra were fleeing the aerial bombardment, which has intensified in recent days.
There was no immediate toll in the fighting or the airstrikes, which have generally targeted the residential part of Palmyra, not its ancient sector.
ISIS-affiliated media claimed that at least 10 regime soldiers had been killed and three tanks disabled or destroyed during the clashes, while anti-regime activists from the city also reported that the army was approaching the city.
In Damascus, a security source confirmed the army had advanced to within several kilometers of Palmyra.
“Yesterday, the army was able to make significant progress in advancing toward the city,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Fighting is continuing between the army and ISIS,” he added.
Official news agency SANA said air raids hit ISIS positions in Palmyra as well as on the outskirts of the Shaar gas field and other areas in Homs province.
ISIS forces overran Palmyra on May 21, after sweeping toward the city from their strongholds in eastern Deir al-Zor and northern Raqqa.
Their capture of Palmyra raised international concerns they might destroy the city’s ancient ruins, as they have in other places in Syria and Iraq. Though ISIS fighters have reportedly destroyed at least one statue, no damage to the ruins has been reported.
However, the group carried out at least one mass execution of government soldiers in Palmyra’s famed ancient theater later publishing footage of the killings online.
In Washington, the White House’s nominee to become the next chairman of the joint chiefs of staff played down the danger to the United States posed by ISIS, saying that Russia and China represented greater “threats.”
Speaking during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, stressed the need to undertake a long-term battle against ISIS extremists.
Dunford declined to give specific time frames or details on what an anti-ISIS effort would like under his leadership, commenting that the group’s presence in Iraq would require a multiyear effort that deals with several key political underlying aspects.
In Aleppo, at least 19 civilians, including five children, were killed by a regime barrel-bomb attack and rebel rocket fire, the Observatory said.
Fifteen of the civilians, among them four of the children and a pregnant woman, were killed in a barrel bomb strike Wednesday evening on a rebel-held district of the divided northern city, it said.
“The children were aged under 10,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
The crude explosives-filled container hit a building in the northeastern neighborhood of Karam al-Beik as residents were sitting down for iftar.
An AFP journalist saw men screaming as they carried the lifeless body of a boy out of the partly collapsed building before covering him with a makeshift shroud.
Another group brought a dazed elderly man out of the rubble.
The rescue teams, wearing hard hats with headlamps attached, struggled to pick through the rubble in the darkness, some using picks or just their hands to search for survivors.
The other four civilians were killed by rebel rocket fire on the government-held district of Midan later Wednesday evening, the Observatory said.
Twenty people were also wounded, the Britain-based Observatory said. – Agencies, with The Daily Star