Russian air strikes drive Syrian troops driven out of Palmyra
GOVERNMENT forces backed by Russian airstrikes have driven Islamic State group fighters from the historic central town of Palmyra, held by the extremists since May, Syrian state media and an opposition monitoring group have said.
The government forces have been on the offensive for nearly three weeks to try to retake the town, which is home to famed Roman-era ruins and was once one of Syria's top tourist destinations.
State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that "the armed forces and groups of popular defence committees have fully taken control of Palmyra".
The popular defence committees are militias allied with the government.
The Britain-based Syrian observatory for human rights confirmed IS has lost the town, saying there were many deaths among the extremists.
The advance marks both a strategic and symbolic victory for the government.
Its forces are now better positioned for a future advance on Raqqa, the IS group's de facto capital, and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, which is mostly held by the extremists.
IS drove government forces from Palmyra in a matter of days last May and later demolished some of the best-known monuments in the Unesco world heritage site, including two large temples dating back more than 1,800 years and a Roman triumphal archway.
The extremists have destroyed a number of historical sites across their self-declared caliphate, viewing such ruins as promoting idolatry.
IS also demolished Palmyra's infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of government opponents were reportedly tortured.
Syrian culture minister Issam Khalil hailed the recapture of Palmyra as a "victory for humanity and right over all projects of darkness."
Maamoun Abdulkarim, director of the government's museums and antiquities department in Damascus, said damage to the great colonnade at Palmyra is minor.
"We will rebuild what you have destroyed," he said, addressing IS.
Syrian state TV interrupted its normal programmes to air a documentary about the town and its archaeological sites.
"It's 10 in the morning Palmyra time. Our morning is victorious," a TV announcer said.
Later a TV reporter spoke live from inside Palmyra, showing troops in the centre of the town. Some of the nearby buildings had been reduced to rubble.
The Syrian observatory for human rights said three weeks of fighting killed more than 400 IS fighters, as well as 180 troops and pro-government militia.
Residents said that IS evacuated all of Palmyra's civilians to other territories under its control before government forces entered the city.
Government forces have advanced on a number of fronts in recent months, aided by a Russian air campaign. Moscow announced earlier this month that it would begin drawing down its forces, but said it will continue to target IS and other extremist groups.
Russian jets carried out 40 air sorties near Palmyra in a 24-hour period, hitting 158 targets and killing more than 100 militants, Russia's defence minister said Saturday.
The government has also benefited from a US and Russian-brokered ceasefire that has sharply reduced violence across the country since it took effect last month. IS and the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front are excluded from the agreement. The truce is intended to support peace talks under way in Geneva that were adjourned last week.
Syria's conflict began a little more than five years ago with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family's four-decade rule. A fierce government crackdown and the rise of an insurgency plunged the country into a full-blown civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people.