Syrian government forces, backed by Russian warplanes, on Sunday retook full control of a strategic town near the historic city of Palmyra, the Syrian army said.
"Units from the army, backed by air cover from Syrian and Russian jets, have restored security and stability to the town of al-Qaraytain," the army said in a statement, according to state news agency SANA.
Al-Qaraytain in central Syria is located around 100 kilometres south-west of Palmyra, an ancient city that regime forces recaptured last week from Islamic State.
Al-Qaraytain is strategically important because it links the rural areas of the central Homs province and the countryside of the capital Damascus, according to the army’s statement.
"This achievement secures oil and gas piplines in the area. It also cuts off supply routes for Daesh between the Syrian Desert and the region of Qalamoun on the edge of Damascus,” the statement added, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group with activists on the ground, contradicted the claim, saying that regime forces - backed by Russian airstrikes - had only regained just over half of the town.
“The regime forces have controlled the centre of the town, but clashes are still underway in several parts on the outskirts,” the Observatory’s head Rami Abdel-Rahman said without giving casualty figures.
Islamic State fighters have withdrawn to the eastern side of the town, according to Abdel-Raman.
“In military terms, al-Qaraytain can be said to have fallen to the regime forces since yesterday (Saturday) when they controlled the hills surrounding it,” he told dpa.
“The regime’s recapture of al-Qaraytain is symbolic because it is the second to fall ... after Palmyra. It also opens the way for the regime to gain further territory in the Syrian Desert.”
Islamic State seized al-Qaryatain in August, forcing most of the town's Christian residents to flee. Weeks later, the al-Qaeda breakaway group destroyed the 5th century Mar Elian monastery near al-Qaryatain.
Islamic State has lost significant ground in Syria since September when Russia started an air campaign there in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
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