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Syria army retakes Palmyra citadel, IS number two 'dead'


Baku-APA. The Islamic State group suffered a double setback in Syria Friday as army troops recaptured parts of the ancient city of Palmyra and the Pentagon said the jihadists' second-in-command was killed in a US raid, APA reports quoting AFP.

The seizure by Russian-backed Syrian troops of areas of Palmyra including the hilltop citadel came nearly a year after IS overran the UNESCO world heritage site, most of which remains in jihadist hands.

 

The regime's gains came after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's President Vladimir Putin agreed to intensify the drive for a political settlement in Syria.

Pentagon chief Ashton Carter said the death this week of Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, described as IS's number two, would hamper the ability of the jihadists to conduct operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

He said Washington was "systematically eliminating" IS's cabinet, referring also to the killing earlier this month of "Omar the Chechen," who Washington said was effectively the jihadists' defence minister.

 

"The momentum of this campaign is now clearly on our side," he said.

Syrian state television said loyalist troops has seized the Palmyra citadel "after inflicting many losses in the ranks of the terrorist group Daesh," using another name for IS.

It said the army had also cut off the main Palmyra-Deir Ezzor highway leading to the Iraqi border.

IS has blown up UNESCO-listed temples in Palmyra and looted relics that dated back thousands of years, and murdered the city's former antiquities chief.

Built in the 13th century, the citadel is Palmyra's main Islamic-era monument.

 

Earlier, Syria's antiquities chief Maamoun Abdelkarim said the army had also made gains elsewhere in the city.

"In the southwest, the army has liberated the district of hotels and restaurants as well as the Valley of the Tombs," he told AFP.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said Russian and Syrian warplanes were continuing air strikes in the area.

Abdelkarim said the army was 600 metres (yards) from the site of the Temple of Bel, which IS destroyed in September, "but it is advancing slowly because of mines and above all to protect the city, which is an ancient treasure."

- Assad still a sticking point -

Palmyra's full recapture would be a major strategic and symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad, since whoever holds it also controls the vast desert extending from central Syria to the Iraqi border.

 

IS also faces mounting pressure in neighbouring Iraq where the army said on Thursday it had launched a long-awaited offensive to retake the second city of Mosul, a key IS hub since a lightning assault in June 2014.

Iraqi forces cleared roadside bombs and booby traps Friday in villages from which they ousted jihadists a day earlier south of Mosul, officials said.

The army has described the operation in which these villages were retaken as the first phase of an offensive to recapture Nineveh province and its capital Mosul.

Experts have warned that any battle to retake the city would be difficult, given the significant number of jihadists and civilians and the time IS has had to prepare defences.

The fighting came as the latest round of peace talks aimed at ending Syria's five-year war, which has left more than 270,000 people dead, came to a close.

Kerry and Putin, who back different sides in Syria's war, agreed at a rare meeting in Moscow to push for a political settlement, but the future of Assad remains a sticking point.

 

Unless Assad agrees to step down, there are concerns that the Syrian opposition could drop out of peace negotiations, which UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said he was aiming to restart on April 9.

- 'Symbol of cultural cleansing' -

The focus of Syria's war appears to have shifted to the battle against IS in Palmyra, nearly a month after a ceasefire between the army and non-jihadist rebels brokered by the United States and Russia came into force.

Global concern over the jihadist threat was further heightened this week by a deadly attack in Brussels that was claimed by IS.

 

In IS's de facto capital Raqa in northern Syria, "jihadists have been celebrating the Brussels attack all week," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The group's top religious figure in the city, Abu Ali al-Sharii, meanwhile led the Friday prayer with a pledge to commit more violence.

"We vow new operations by jihadists in the West," he said, according to the Observatory.

 

UNESCO chief Irinia Bokova welcomed the push to recapture Palmyra.

"For one year, Palmyra has been a symbol of the cultural cleansing plaguing the Middle East," she said.

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