(Reuters) Russian-backed Syrian government forces and their allies recaptured the historic Palmyra citadel, on the city’s western outskirts, from Islamic State fighters on Wednesday, a military media unit run by Hezbollah said.
The Syrian army also seized a modern palatial complex to the southwest, it said, in advances that brought it closer to storming the city and driving back the jihadists.
Islamic State has captured Palmyra, whose ancient ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, twice during Syria’s six-year-old conflict.
The Syrian army and its allies, backed by Russian air support, recaptured the city from the ultra-hardline group in March last year, but Islamic State seized it again in December.
The group has razed ancient monuments during both of its spells in control of Palmyra – destruction the United Nations has condemned as a war crime.
A Syrian military source told Reuters earlier on Wednesday: “The army’s entry to the city will begin very soon.”
The army said it had captured an area known as the “Palmyra triangle” a few kilometers (miles) west of the city after rapid advances in recent days backed by Russian air strikes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based organization that reports on the war, said government forces were expected to storm Palmyra at “any moment”. Russia has said its aircraft are supporting the army offensive in Palmyra.
Photos published on an Islamic State Telegram account on Wednesday showed the group’s fighters firing at the Syrian army with rockets and a tank. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the photos.
Islamic State first captured Palmyra from the government in 2015. During its first period in control of the site, the jihadists destroyed monuments including a 1,800-year-old monumental arch.
Most recently, Islamic State has razed the landmark Tetrapylon and the facade of Palmyra’s Roman Theater. Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur, stood at the crossroads of the ancient world.
The government and its allies lost Palmyra as they focused on defeating Syrian rebel groups in eastern Aleppo. The rebel groups were driven from eastern Aleppo in December, the government’s biggest victory of the war.