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Photograph: EPA/SANA / HANDOUT

Syrian government forces on Saturday reversed a counter-attack by Islamic State in the central city of Palmyra and recaptured districts in the ancient city from the terrorist militia, Syria's state media and activists reported.

The government troops, backed by Russian airstrikes, seized  at least three districts in the western and northern parts of Palmyra after killing dozens of "terrorists," Syria's official news agency SANA said.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group with a network of activists inside the war-torn country, said the regime's advances came after they mounted the biggest offensive in Palmyra since they started a campaign three weeks ago to regain it from Islamic State.

Extremists were reportedly forced to withdraw to the eastern side of the desert city.

Three days after entering Palmyra, the regime troops are now in control of around one third of the city famed for its Roman-era relics, the Britain-based watchdog said.

Earlier on Saturday, regime forces were briefly compelled to retreat to the outskirts of Palmyra because of Islamic State's counter-attack.

At least 10 Syrian soldiers were killed in the attack that involved car bombings, the Observatory said.

Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been under Islamic State's control since May 2015.

The city in the Homs province is strategically located in a region between the capital Damascus and the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, mostly controlled by Islamic State.

Palmyra's fall would be the regime's biggest victory since Russia began an air campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in September. 

Since Islamic State's takeover of Palmyra, the radical group destroyed several famous sites in the city, including the more than 2,000-year-old Baalshamin Temple.

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