BEIRUT • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group yesterday said that it had captured the desert city of Palmyra after driving out government forces, but Russia rejected the claims and said it had inflicted heavy losses on the Islamists with air strikes in support of the Syrian army.
Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamists took control of Palmyra after Syrian armed forces pulled out. "Despite the ongoing air raids, IS retook all of Palmyra after the Syrian army withdrew south of the city," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.
The ISIS-linked Amaq news agency reported that ISIS regained "full control" of the city yesterday after taking the citadel, which overlooks Palmyra from a strategic hilltop.
But Russia contested this version of events. In a statement issued in Moscow, the defence ministry said Russian warplanes conducted 64 air strikes against "positions, convoys and advancing reserves of militants" in Palmyra.
"Over the past night, Syrian government troops with active support of the Russian air force thwarted all terrorist attacks on Palmyra," it said in a statement. "The attacking militants actively used car bombs with suicide bombers, armoured vehicles and rocket artillery," it said, adding that the strikes killed more than 300 militants and destroyed 11 tanks and 31 vehicles.
Russia's monitoring centre in Syria asserted that more than 4,000 ISIS militants had regrouped and launched a second attack to try to recapture the ancient city.
"Despite heavy losses in manpower and equipment, the terrorists are trying as hard as possible to secure a foothold inside the city," Interfax quoted a statement from the centre as saying. "Syrian troops are fighting to defend Palmyra."
The centre said ISIS was drawing on "significant forces" from its strongholds in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
ISIS launched its offensive last week near Palmyra, a renowned Unesco World Heritage site. It seized oil and gas fields before making a major push into the desert city on Saturday, sparking new worries for Palmyra's remaining ancient treasures.
Meanwhile, in Aleppo, thousands of civilians poured out of rebel areas yesterday as Syria's army pushed to take the last remnants of opposition-held territory in the city.
President Bashar al-Assad's forces pounded the shrinking rebel enclave in east Aleppo with artillery and air strikes, a monitor said, with more than 10,000 people fleeing the area since midnight.
US and Russian officials were expected to continue talks in Geneva yesterday on trying to reach a ceasefire in Aleppo, but a week of intense diplomatic efforts have failed to stem the fighting.
At least 80,000 people had already fled eastern Aleppo before yesterday, according to the monitor.
Experts say the retaking of all of Aleppo by Mr Assad's forces appears to be only a matter of time and will deal the biggest blow to Syria's opposition since the start of the country's civil war in 2011.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the regime's bombings of Aleppo "war crimes", said the time was ripe for a return to negotiations. Now that the rebels "are about to lose Aleppo, conceivably... I think the best thing they can do is get to the table and negotiate. Because they can still win a political settlement that honours the fight and all they've invested," he said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE