Syria army pushes ISIL back from ancient Palmyra
DAMASCUS // Syrian troops pushed ISIL militants back from the ancient city of Palmyra yesterday.
Syrian opposition activists confirmed that militants withdrew from a government building they had seized in the northern part of the town on Saturday, as clashes between the two sides continued. Dozens of people were killed although fears for the world heritage site eased.
Palmyra is renowned for its Roman-era colonnades and 2,000-year-old ruins.
The militants had seized the northern part of the modern town, Tadmur, in a major assault on Saturday but were driven out by troops and militia.
“We have good news today,” Syrian antiquities chief Mamoun Abdulkarim said. “There was no damage to the ruins, but this does not mean we should not be afraid.”
Provincial governor Talal Barazi said that the army had recaptured northern districts of the town which the extremists had overrun.
“ISIL’s attack was foiled,” Mr Barazi said, adding that the army was “still combing the streets for bombs” but the “the situation in the city and its outskirts is good”.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were still sporadic skirmishes but the army had reasserted its control.
“There are still clashes – though not very fierce – in the northern suburbs of Al Amiriyah,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
He said the extremists were just a kilometre away from the Unesco-listed site and its adjacent museum which houses thousands of priceless artefacts.
“ISIL is still present outside the city, to the south and east,” Mr Abdel Rahman said.
The militants launched a lightning offensive across the desert last week from their stronghold in the Euphrates Valley to the east, triggering ferocious fighting with the army, which has a major base just outside the oasis town.
At least 23 regime loyalists and 29 extremists were killed as ISIL overran northern parts of the town on Saturday, the Observatory said.
Mr Barazi said the army had killed “more than 130 jihadists” but gave no figure for the army’s losses.
The governor said Tadmur’s peacetime population of 70,000 had been swamped by an influx of civilians fleeing the ISIL advance.
“We are taking all necessary precautions, and we are working on securing humanitarian aid quickly in fear of masses fleeing from the city,” Mr Barazi said.
The antiquities chief said he had been “living in a state of terror” that ISIL would destroy the 1st and 2nd century temples and colonnaded streets that are among Palmyra’s architectural treasures.
The ISIL group tightened its control of the countryside outside Tadmur, seizing two checkpoints in the Haql Al Hail oil field, the Observatory said.
Troops and militia were fighting back in a bid to prevent ISIL from capturing the field which could offer it a significant additional source of black market revenue.
A US raid late on Friday on one of Syria’s largest oil fields left 32 ISIL members dead, including four leading officials, Mr Abdel Rahman said.
“The US operation killed 32 members of ISIL, among them four officials, including ISIL oil chief Abu Sayyaf, the deputy ISIL defence minister, and an ISIL communications official,” he said.
US officials have said “about a dozen” people were killed in the operation, which was conducted by Iraq-based US commandos in a bid to capture Abu Sayyaf.
Mr Abdel Rahman said three of the four leading officials killed in the raid were from north Africa, but that the ISIL communications official was Syrian.
President Barack Obama personally approved the special forces operation, which was a rare use of “boots on the ground” in the US-led campaign against the extremists that has been waged almost entirely from the air.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press