PALMYRA (Syria) • Syrian troops recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group yesterday, and pledged to build on the win with an advance against other militant strongholds.
The army said pro-government forces cleared ISIS fighters from the Unesco world heritage site, where the terrorists had sparked a global outcry with the systematic destruction of treasured monuments, Agence France-Presse reported.
"Palmyra will be the central base to broaden operations... against Daesh in numerous areas, primarily Deir Ezzor and Raqa," the armed forces said in a statement carried by state media, using an Arabic name for ISIS.
The northern city of Raqa is ISIS' main Syrian bastion, and the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor is another key stronghold.
Backed by a barrage of Russian air strikes, Syrian troops and allied militia launched a major offensive to retake the desert city this month.
Palmyra is both an important symbolic and strategic prize for President Bashar al-Assad's forces, as it provides control of the surrounding desert extending all the way to the Iraqi border.
This is an important achievement and fresh proof of the efficiency of the Syrian army and its allies in fighting terrorism.
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, on the victory against ISIS fighters in Palmyra.
Hailing the victory yesterday, Mr Assad said during a meeting with French parliamentarians in Damascus: "This is an important achievement and fresh proof of the efficiency of the Syrian army and its allies in fighting terrorism."
At least 400 ISIS fighters were killed in the battle, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. On the government side, 188 troops and militiamen were killed.
"That is the heaviest loss that ISIS has sustained in a single battle since its creation (in 2013)," said the Britain-based monitoring group's director, Mr Rami Abdel Rahman.
Syrian state TV footage from inside the famed Palmyra museum showed jagged pieces of sculptures lying on the ground, blanketed in dust. A stone head of an unidentified statue lay in the centre of one room, surrounded by cracked columns.
Most of the pieces in the city's museum were evacuated by antiquities staff before ISIS arrived in May last year, but larger artefacts that could not be moved remained in the building.
Outside, in the city's main roundabout, a small group of soldiers strolled through debris-covered streets under a clear sky.
ISIS, which is behind a string of attacks in the West, including last week's Brussels bombings, is under growing pressure from Syrian and Iraqi military offensives to retake bastions of its self-proclaimed "caliphate". Yesterday, thousands of civilians fled fighting on the new front opened by Iraqi forces against ISIS south of the city of Mosul.
Desperate families crammed into the back of pickup trucks, sometimes taking the dead and wounded with them, and emerged from the dust after crossing the front line. They were met by Kurdish forces.
Iraqi troops and allied paramilitary fighters last Thursday launched a major offensive aimed at retaking the northern Nineveh province, the capital of which, Mosul, is the main hub of ISIS in Iraq.
The forces have been advancing from their base in Makhmur towards the town of Qayyarah, about 60km south of Mosul.
A growing number of civilians have been fleeing the advance to Makhmur, where they are being assisted by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
"So far, we have received around 3,000 people, and the numbers are growing every day," said Mr Ali Khodeir Ahmed, a member of Nineveh's provincial council.
The Iraqi government has described the advance as the first phase of what is expected to be a long and difficult operation to retake Mosul, the country's second city.