BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces fought their way into Palmyra on Thursday as the army backed by Russian air cover sought to recapture the historic city from Islamic State (IS) insurgents, Syrian state TV and a monitoring group said.
The Syrian army earlier this month launched a concerted offensive to retake Palmyra, which the ultra-hardline Islamist militants seized in May 2015, to open a road to the mostly IS-held eastern province of Deir al-Zor.
Islamic State has blown up ancient temples and tombs since capturing Palmyra, something the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO has called a war crime. The city, located at a crossroads in central Syria, is surrounded mostly by desert.
The state-run news channel Ikhbariya broadcast images from just outside Palmyra on Thursday and said government fighters had taken over a hotel district in the west.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army had advanced into the hotel district just to the southwest of the city and reached the start of a residential area, after a rapid advance the day before brought the army and its allies right up to its outskirts.
Syrian forces have also made gains to the north of the city, state media and the Observatory said.
A soldier interviewed by Ikhbariya said the army and its allies would press forward beyond Palmyra.
“We say to those gunmen, we are advancing to Palmyra, and to what’s beyond Palmyra, and God willing to Raqqa, the center of the Daesh gangs,” he said, referring to Islamic State’s de facto capital in northern Syria.
The state news agency SANA showed warplanes flying overhead, helicopters firing missiles, and soldiers and armored vehicles approaching Palmyra.
SANA also said that the Syrian army was dismantling bombs and mines laid around Palmyra.
Civilians began fleeing after Islamic State fighters told them via loudspeakers to leave the center as fighting drew closer, the Observatory said. The Observatory monitors the war using a network of sources on the ground.
The capture of Palmyra and advances further eastwards into Deir al-Zor would mark the most significant Syrian government gain against Islamic State since the start of Russia’s military intervention last September.
With Russia’s help, Damascus has already taken back some ground from IS, notably east of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and commercial hub before the war.
A U.S.-led coalition, which is conducting air strikes in Syria and Iraq against IS, said it hit IS targets near Palmyra on Wednesday.
This was the first coalition strike in the Palmyra area since March 4, around the time Syria began an offensive to take back Palmyra.
Before that there were two strikes at the end of January.
IS took over Palmyra in May and between July 1 and March 5 the coalition conducted 15 strikes in and around Palmyra, according to data collated by Reuters from the Combined Joint Task Force.
“Since September 2014 the coalition has conducted over 3,650 air strikes in Syria. Many of those strikes have directly supported counter-(IS) forces in Syria,” said a U.S. Defense Department spokesman. “There is no U.S. military or Coalition cooperation with either the Assad government nor the Russians.”
Reporting by Lisa Barrington, John Davison and Dominic Evans in Beirut, and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Ralph Boulton