bashar al-assad.jpg
Photograph: EPA/SANA HANDOUT

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally Vladimir Putin Sunday chalked up a major victory with the capture of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria's central desert from Islamic State jihadists.

An overnight onslaught by troops and militiamen backed by Russian airstrikes finally drove the militants out of the oasis city after ten months, during which they destroyed some of its most famous monuments and turned others into a backdrop for gory executions.

Al-Assad hailed the city’s recapture as a major victory and "evidence of the success of the strategy of the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism.”

Al-Assad also seized the breakthrough to take a swipe at Washington, which has repeatedly called for his departure. He contrasted his force's recapture of Palmyra with what he calls a "lack of seriousness of the alliance [against Islamic State extremists] led by the United States."

The US-led alliance has achieved only "paltry results," al-Assad told a visiting French delegation, according to state news agency SANA.

The highly symbolic victory is the most significant advance by government forces against Islamic State since Russian airstrikes - criticized by Western countries for their impact on more mainstream rebels - were launched in September.

It brings the Syrian army and its militia allies back into the heart of the Syrian desert, a strategic position that helped the jihadists of Islamic State attack government-held territory at multiple points.

Putin phoned al-Assad to congratulate him on retaking Palmyra, a Kremlin spokesman said.

Despite the partial withdrawal of the Russian military from Syria, Moscow will continue to assist Damascus in fighting terrorists, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Al-Assad then responded by saying that "successes like the liberation of Palmyra [would be] impossible without Russia's help."

According to the Russian Defence Ministry, Russia assisted with the city's recapture by deploying fighter jets in 40 missions that bombed 120 targets.

Within 24 hours, around 80 terrorists were killed, and ammunition depots, tanks and large-caliber artillery were destroyed.

The Syrian army, in a bullish statement, said the victory at Palmyra would be a launching pad for wider attacks towards Deir al-Zour - where a beleaguered garrison has held out in the last government enclave in the east of the country for over two years - and north-east towards Islamic State's de facto capital of al-Raqqa.

Russia also wants to assist the Syrian government in clearing the city of mines.

Pescov said that the city's preservation is important for its status as a World Cultural Heritage site.

Putin spoke with UNESCO chief Irina Bokova, who agreed to keep Moscow informed about the plan to restore Palmyra's destroyed monuments and artifacts.

Palmyra's colonnaded main street, a UNESCO World Heritage site, whose triumphal arch was among the landmarks blown up by Islamic State jihadists after they took the city in May, appeared largely undamaged in footage shown by Syria’s al-Ikhbariya state television.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, quoting "multiple reliable sources," said that Islamic State fighters in the city had received orders from their leadership in the north-eastern city of al-Raqqa to withdraw.

The final overnight assault was accompanied by heavy air raids by Russian and Syrian forces as well as artillery shelling and rocket fire, the Observatory said. The Britain-based watchdog added that there were still sounds of gunfire in the east of the city as troops battled militants who had insisted on staying behind and "fight until death."

Explosions, caused by car bombings and suicide attacks, were heard in and on the outskirts of the city, the Observatory said. The attacks were carried out by Islamic State insurgents, it added, without reporting specific casualties.

The three weeks of battles for Palmyra culminating in the regime victory cost the lives of at least 400 Islamic State fighters and 180 government troops and allied militiamen, according to the Observatory.

Syria's head of antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, said that specialist teams would be sent within days to assess the damage to Palmyra's ruins, which date back to the first three centuries AD, when the city was a powerful centre on trade routes through the Syrian desert.

Islamic State is known to have destroyed the main religious site, the Temple of Bel, the city's symbolic triumphal arch, and most of the tower tombs that stood on its outskirts.

The temples of Bel and Baal-Shamin would be rebuilt "in a manner that preserves their historical identity," using the original stones where possible, Abdulkarim told SANA.

The Syrian authorities would work in cooperation with international bodies including UN cultural agency UNESCO, he added.

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