Islamic State has regained control of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, activists and a news agency affiliated with the militant group have said, according to reports. There is conflicting information about the fate of the city in central Syria.
IS re-entered Palmyra on Saturday – the first time since they were expelled nine months ago. Then heavy Russian airstrikes and Syrian army troops appeared to have repelled the push, forcing the militants to retreat to the city’s outskirts.
Now, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the militants were back in control. A video released by the AMAQ news agency, which is affiliated with Islamic State, purported to show fighters in the modern town that lies next to the ancient ruins.
Opposition activists said militants were going from door to door looking for remaining forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al Assad. The Observatory’s head Rami Abdel Rahman said: “Despite the ongoing air raids, IS retook all of Palmyra after the Syrian army withdrew south of the city.”
AMAQ said the group had captured a castle overlooking the city. Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs, the region which includes Palmyra, said: “The army is using all means to prevent the terrorists from staying in Palmyra.” Russia’s defence ministry had said earlier that its jets had launched 64 strikes and killed more than 300 militants during the operation, backing up the Syrian army.
IS has been advancing on the town for days, gaining control of some oil and gas fields on its outskirts along the way. It is not clear who controls them now. Palmyra is home to towering 2,000-year-old ruins and was a major tourist attraction before the civil war broke out in 2011.
IS militants controlled Palmyra for about 10 months from May 2015 to March 2016. During that period they blew up several ancient Roman-era monuments and executed the city’s archaeological director. Syrian and Russian forces recaptured the city in what was hailed as a major victory for Damascus.
To celebrate the success, the Russian government staged a classical music concert in Palmyra’s soaring Roman-era amphitheatre last May. After taking Palmyra, the two states turned their attention to wiping out the internal opposition in Damascus and Aleppo, leaving the historic city relatively unguarded.
The IS push in Palmyra comes days after the group in the Iraqi city of Mosul launched a major counterattack that surprised Iraqi soldiers, killing at least 20 and halting their advance.