JNN 25 Mar 2015 Damascus : The Syrian Army has reportedly taken control of a medieval castle on the hill overlooking the city of Palmyra as the government troops edge close to reclaiming the historic site from Islamic State terrorists.
“The army units in cooperation with popular defense groups have taken control of the Tadmor [Palmyra] citadel after delivering significant losses to the terrorists,” SANA news agency reported, citing a military source.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow expects a Syrian Army operation to retake the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State, with the support of the Russian Air Force, to be successfully concluded soon.
“We’re counting on the operation to liberate Palmyra, which is now carried out by the Syrian Army with support from Russia’s Air Force, to be successfully completed in the nearest future,” Lavrov stated on Friday.
Earlier an army unit, in cooperation with the popular defense groups, dislodged Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) from the Syriatel hill near the Palmyra Castle, a military source told Syrian state news agency SANA on Friday.
The government troops combed the hill after destroying the last IS hideouts and dismantled the explosive devices the militants left behind, the source said.
Several IS fighters were killed as the hill was taken, while the rest fled towards the city of Palmyra, leaving their weapons behind, he added.
A video posted by Military Media Sy news outlet shows the army shelling militant positions with the Palmyra castle seen in the background.
The 13th-century Palmyra Castle or Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
The Syrian Army and its allies have “regained control of the entrance to the city Palmyra” after the liberation of the Palmyra Castle on Friday and height of Alseriaatal – on Thursday, another source told Sputnik.
On March 14, Russia announced that it is withdrawing the majority if its forces from Syria, as the five-month-long operation nears its goals.
However, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov stressed that “it’s early to talk about victory over terrorism. The Russian aviation group is still tasked with striking terrorist targets.”
Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, formerly known for housing some of the best-preserved monuments of antiquity anywhere in the world.
Since capturing it, the jihadists have blown up the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, and the Arch of Triumph, and have used the Roman-era amphitheater for filmed public executions.
The IS militants withdrew from the ancient citadel of Palmyra toward the al-Amiriyeh district in that oasis city in the eastern countryside of the central province of Homs, said the report, adding that the terror group had tried to bring in reinforcements from its strongholds in the northern province of al-Raqqa, but the Syrian army struck the backup forces of the IS.
The Syrian military forces are now combing areas between the hills and the ancient citadel of Palmyra in preparation for their entry, said the report, adding that the Syrian army also cut off the IS supply line between Palmyra and the town of Qaryatain in Homs countryside.
The battles between the IS and the Syrian army are so intense in Palmyra, the TV noted.
Meanwhile, the report said the Syrian army is advancing in Palmyra under the air cover of the Russian air force.
The fresh progress came after the Syrian army recaptured several areas west of Palmyra, said the report, adding that the army and its allies are less than one kilometers from central Palmyra.
Under the heavy shelling, the IS militants started moving their families toward the eastern province of Deir al-Zour.
A day earlier, the state-run Alekhabria TV said the military forces started entering the northern district of Palmyra, followed by the bomb squads, which have started dismantling the mines and explosive devices planted by the IS.
The Syrian army reached the entrance of Palmyra on Thursday, just hours after the government forces captured the al-Hayaleh mountain near the city, said the TV, adding that the infantry forces stormed IS fortifications in the northern districts of Palmyra.
The Syrian army will retake Palmyra within the next few hours, the TV said, adding that the IS militants are fleeing the city en masse, possibly to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, much of which under the IS control.
The Syrian army troops backed by popular forces have captured 110 square kilometers of lands in their push in the Eastern part of Homs province in the last two days.
The Syrian army in cooperation with the National Defence Forces (NDF), Hezbollah fighters and Syrian and Russian air forces have purged the ISIS Takfiri terrorists from 110 square kilometers of lands near the ancient city of Palmyra (Tadmur) in the Eastern parts of Homs province in the past 48 hours.
A few hours ago, the Syrian army and its allies won control over a key hill in Eastern Homs province.
Battlefield reports from Homs province said terrorists have sustained heavy casualties By the Syrian army and popular forces’ who continued the large-scale operations against ISIS’s concentration centers on Friday.
Meantime, the Russian Defense Ministry said the country’s bombers hit 146 terrorist targets around Palmyra from March 20 to March 23, and killed more than 300 terrorists during the operations.
“From March 20 to March 23 Russian Air Force conducted 41 sorties around Palmyra, Homs province, hitting 146 military terrorist targets. Six command centers, 320 terrorists, five tanks, six artillery systems, two ammunition depots and 15 vehicles were destroyed,” defence ministry said.
“The Syrian Army and Hezbollah started operation to capture Semiramis Hotel in Palmyra Suburb which is now an ISIS base,” a source said.
Similar to the well-known Qatari Royal Villa, the Semiramis Hotel has been turned into a fortified military installation by ISIS, it is also used as the Takfiri terrorist group’s barracks.
If the Syrian Armed Forces and Hezbollah succeed in liberating the Semiramis Hotel from the ISIS terrorists, they will be in a position to enter Palmyra for the first time since their large-scale retreat from this ancient city on May last year.
While the Syrian Armed Forces focus on the Semiramis Hotel, the Russian Air Force is pounding ISIS’s supply route between the city and the nearby town of Al-Sakhanah.
The Russian Air Force carried out more than two dozen airstrikes and the number is likely to skyrocket in the coming hours as the battle to liberate Palmyra intensifies.