Backed by Russian air support, Syria's army and allied fighters have in recent weeks advanced towards Deir Ezzor on several fronts
Syrian troops breach 3-year ISIL siege on Deir Ezzor
Syria's army broke a three-year ISIL siege on the eastern city of Deir Ezzor on Tuesday, as its troops and allied forces pressed on to purge the extremists from their stronghold near the Iraqi border.
The victory in Deir Ezzor marks another milestone for the forces of president Bashar Al Assad who in the past year made several advances on ISIL.
The group has already lost more than half of its nearby bastion of Raqqa to US-backed forces, and the loss of Deir Ezzor city and its surrounding oil-rich province of the same name would leave the militant group with only a handful of isolated outposts.
"The Syrian Arab Army this afternoon broke the siege on Deir Ezzor city after its advancing forces arrived from the western province to Brigade 137," state news agency Sana said.
"This great achievement is a strategic shift in the war on terror," the army command said.
Backed by Russian air support, Syria's army and allied fighters have in recent weeks advanced towards Deir Ezzor on several fronts.
Ending the siege also puts an end to a humanitarian crisis for some 70,000 people who have received only erratic air drops of food and supplies in the last 32 months.
Dozens of trucks carrying aid are already poised to enter, according to Syrian state media.
The army command said the city will be used as a "launching pad to expand military operations in the region".
Syrian state TV said troops reached the western outskirts of the city and broke the siege after ISIL defences collapsed. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also reported that troops had breached the siege.
The militants "did give up easily and used lots of suicide car bombs yesterday, but could not resist much", said opposition activist Omar Abu Laila, who currently lives in Europe but is from Deir Ezzor and is in contact with people there.
As they reached soldiers who had been besieged inside the base and adjacent parts of the city, the troops embraced and shouted patriotic slogans.
Others fired in the air and flashed victory signs, as Syrian and Russian warplanes flew overhead.
"We promised that we would not let Deir Ezzor fall, and it did not fall," General Issam Zahreddine, commander of the 7,000 soldiers in the city, shouted jubilantly to journalists.
Civilians gathered on either side of the road connecting the base to neighbourhoods of the city to welcome the arriving troops.
Deir Ezzor governor Mohammed Ibrahim Samra told Reuters that government troops were also pushing towards the airbase.
"The forces have begun to lift the siege," he said. "Our residents have been waiting for this moment … forces are [trying to] break the siege on the military airport as well."
The coming days will see the clearing of Deir Ezzor city of militants and advances on nearby countryside under ISIL control, Mr Samra added.
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad congratulated his troops in a call to commanders at the base.
"Today you stood side-by-side with your comrades who came to your rescue and fought the hardest battles to break the siege on the city," he said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated his Syrian counterpart, hailing the breakthrough as "a strategic victory" over ISIL militants, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.
ISIL has suffered a series of major setbacks in recent months. Iraqi forces drove the extremists from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June, and US-backed Syrian forces have seized more than half of the Syrian city of Raqqa, once the group's self-declared capital.
An exiled Deir Ezzor resident and former opposition fighter, whose family has remained in the city in ISIL-controlled areas, welcomed the lifting of the siege.
Speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, he said the fate of civilians in ISIL-controlled areas remained unclear.
Deir Ezzor — a city on the Euphrates river and once the centre of Syria's oil industry — stretches all the way to the Iraqi border, taking in several towns and villages.
It is the largest remaining ISIL stronghold and advance into the city is another stinging blow to the group. The extremists still control around 60 per cent of the city, and it could take Assad's forces months to drive them out.
The offensive that led to breaking the siege was led by Gen Suheil Al Hassan, who is known as the Tiger. Gen Al Hassan has been behind much of recent victories by government forces, including the capture of eastern parts of the northern city of Aleppo in December, the government's biggest victory since the conflict began in March 2011.
Meanwhile, Russia's defence ministry said a Russian warship in the Mediterranean fired cruise missiles early Tuesday toward ISIL targets near the city. The ministry said it targeted a fortified area around the town of El Shola, where most of the militants are believed to hail from Russia and former Soviet republics.
The ministry said its drone footage showed that the missile strikes destroyed a communications centre, command centres, ammunition depots, a repair shop for armoured vehicles and killed an unspecified number of militants.