Palmyra syria conflict.jpg
Photograph: EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI

Syrian government forces, backed by Russian warplanes, on Sunday recaptured a strategic town near the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State terrorist militia, Syrian army and activists 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 pipelines 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, said that regime forces controlled most of al-Qaraytain and were engaged in fight against militants in the south-eastern side of the town. No casualty figures were reported.

“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,” head of the Britain-based watchdog Rami Abdel-Rahman 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.

The radical group’s stronghold in Syria is now in the north-eastern city of al-Raqqa, which has in recent weeks been the target of separate airstrikes by Russia and a US-led alliance.

On Wednesday, Abu al-Hija al-Tunisi, a senior Islamic State leader, was reportedly killed by an unidentified drone in al-Raqqa.

The Observatory on Sunday reported that Islamic State executed 15 members of its security services in al-Raqqa in relation to al-Tunisia’s killing.

The alleged executions have been the largest so far by the militant group against its members, according to the watchdog. It did not say when the executions were carried out.

In recent months, Islamic State has also suffered major military setbacks in neighbouring Iraq where it seized major chunks of territory in mid-2014. 

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