Palmyra battles kill nearly 300 people amid military progress

DAMASCUS, May 17 (Xinhua) -- Nearly 300 people, including fighters and militants, were killed during the four-day-long battles in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra in the countryside of the central province of Homs, a monitor group reported Sunday, as the Syrian army managed to force the Islamic State (IS) militants to draw back.

The days-long battles between the Syrian army and the IS group in Palmyra have resulted in the killing of around 300 people, including civilians, Syrian army soldiers and IS militants, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The UK-based watchdog group said the death toll includes 123 Syrian soldiers and 115 IS militants, adding that the rest were civilians who were either executed by the IS or killed during government troops' shelling.

Meanwhile, the Observatory said the Syrian government troops were advancing under the cover of the air force, adding that the IS militants were forced to retreat due to the heavy shelling and airstrikes by the Syrian air force.

Still, the IS is still in control over the town of Amiriyeh and some areas in the northern countryside of Palmyra, as well as the al-Hail gas field at the outskirts of that ancient city, according to the Observatory.

However, the state news agency SANA said the Syrian army with the help of the locals in Palmyra have eliminated the last gatherings of the IS group in the town of Amiriyeh and the hills surrounding Palmyra and its ancient city, following intense clashes with the IS, who have "suffered great losses in militants and weaponry."

Syrian warplanes also killed many IS militants during airstrikes on their positions in the vicinity of the al-Hail field and the Third Oil Station in the countryside of Palmyra, said SANA, adding that 150 IS militants were killed on Saturday alone.

Meanwhile, the governor of Homs province, Talal Barazi, said the army units are currently combing the Amiriyeh town for bombs and explosive devices planted between the houses, stressing that dozens of IS terrorists were killed while the rest fled the area.

The governor stressed that the archaeological city of Palmyra is "secure," adding that the road linking Homs and Palmyra is also "fully secure."

Also, the pan-Arab al-Mayadeen reported that 100 IS militants were killed while withdrawing from areas they entered in Palmyra, adding that the Syrian air force targeted a IS convoy of 80 vehicles with 16 airstrikes during their withdrawal on Sunday.

Earlier on Sunday, Mamoun Abdulkarim, Syria's director-general of antiquities and museums, told Xinhua that the IS militants withdrew from areas they entered in Palmyra.

"The latest news that we have received this morning and now is that the IS terrorists have withdrawn from the city of Palmyra and they have been dislodged from that area and the situation there is relieving," Abdulkarim told Xinhua.

He added that the group didn't enter the ancient part of the city, adding that the terror group attempted to storm the ancient citadel of Palmyra in vain.

"They definitely hadn't entered the ancient part of the city. They have attempted to storm the ancient citadel from its north and they also attempted to enter the area from the eastern side but they didn't get close to the areas where the museums and the ancient tombs are located," he said.

Meanwhile, the Syria official stressed that all ancient parts of that millennia-old oasis city were not affected by the recent IS attack.

"I can say that the ancient parts of Palmyra were not touched because the clashes were taking place at the outskirts," he noted.

The IS unleashed attack on the city last Thursday in a bid to take control of that strategic area. Opposition groups said the terror group entered parts of the northern district of Palmyra.

Sources told Xinhua that the Syrian troops sent reinforcement to protect the ancient part of the city.

On Thursday, the UNESCO expressed deep concerns over fighting near Palmyra that is endangering the nearby population and posing an imminent threat to the iconic ruins, calling out to all parties "to make every effort to prevent its destruction."

"The site has already suffered four years of conflict, it suffered from looting and represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world," UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said.

"I appeal to all parties to protect Palmyra and make every effort to prevent its destruction," he said.

UNESCO said Palmyra is considered one of the most important cultural sites in the Middle East.

Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world.

From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences, according to the UNESCO.

Syria has many prehistoric, Greek, Byzantine and Islamic heritages. Before the crisis, Syria had attracted many multinational archaeological missions coming for searching new clues of historical facts on the development of civilizations.

The UNESCO has listed six Syrian sites on the World Heritage List, including the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, al-Madhiq castle, the Krak des Chevaliers, the ancient city of Bosra and Palmyra and the ancient villages in northern Syria.



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