A Syrian monitor says Islamic State jihadists have recaptured the Syrian city of Palmrya, during what has become a back-and-forth battle for control of the famed desert city.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the British-based monitor group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday, “Despite the ongoing air raids, IS retook all of Palmyra after the Syrian army withdrew south of the city.”
Earlier Sunday, the Observatory and the Russian Defense Ministry said more than 60 Russian airstrikes had forced Islamic State fighters to pull out of the ancient central Syrian city, not long after the extremists fought their way into the city.
The Observatory said fighting continued outside the city.
A Russian Defense Ministry statement said Russian warplanes conducted 64 air strikes against “positions, convoys and advancing reserves of militants” on the famed desert city that is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Russia said it killed 300 militants who “actively used car bombs with suicide bombers, armored vehicles and rocket artillery.” The ministry said 11 tanks and 31 vehicles were destroyed.
Islamic State extremists fought their way into Palmyra Saturday after two days of intense fighting against government forces.
The extremist push in Homs province comes nine months after militants were driven from the city by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies in a counter-offensive touted at the time by Syrian military officials as a “fatal blow” to the jihadist organization.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad had not commented on the Palmyra fighting by late Saturday, and no updated casualty figures were immediately available.
To the north, monitors reported heavy fighting in southeastern districts of the city of Aleppo, after a two-week offensive by the Russia-backed Syrian army and its Shi’ite allies that has split the city’s rebel-held east and left rebel forces in disarray. Witnesses to Saturday’s fighting said rebels were holding their ground in the devastated eastern sector.
The Observatory reported 24 civilians killed by government ordnance since Friday, and said at least nine others were killed by retaliatory rebel artillery fire into government-controlled sectors of the city during the same period.
In other developments, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the deployment of 200 more military personnel to northern Syria, to help the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the push capture the IS stronghold of Raqqa
Carter said the 200 troops will include special forces trainers, advisers and explosive ordnance disposal teams. The new force will join some 300 U.S. military already deployed in the north to assist in the ongoing push to defeat Islamic State at Raqqa.
The U.S. Central Command tweeted Saturday the U.S. force will stand ready to “directly assist NATO ally Turkey” in the regional fight against extremist forces.
In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with other top diplomats Saturday in an attempt to revive stalled talks with Russia on easing the Aleppo crisis, which has left tens of thousands of civilians in the city’s east without food or other humanitarian supplies.
U.S. and Russian diplomats were holding separate closed-door talks in Geneva at the same time, in an effort to find agreement between Moscow and Washington on the situation in Aleppo.
The Paris talks included foreign ministers from France, Germany, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and a representative of the European Union. France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault said they agreed on sweeping aid provisions and a ban on torture and retaliatory killings once the fighting stops.
The French diplomat said the ministers’ plan would only take hold if the Syrian government and Russia both agree to terms of the emerging post-battle plan for Aleppo