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Syrian army: Ancient city of Palmyra partially retaken from Islamic State

By Doug G. Ware
Syrian army: Ancient city of Palmyra partially retaken from Islamic State
The ancient temple of Baal Shamin, or "Lord of the Heavens," in Palmyra, Syria, seen here before it was destroyed by Islamic State militants in July 2015. Photo courtesy Syria's department of antiquities and museums

PALMYRA, Syria, March 25 (UPI) -- After being an insurgent stronghold for nearly a year, the ancient city of Palmyra has been partly retaken by Syrian military forces, government officials said Friday.

Backed by coalition forces, Syria's army said troops recaptured many parts of the city, which has been a major strategic location in the battle between Islamic State militants and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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The army troops began trying to recapture the city on Thursday.

ISIS forces had largely held the city since May and intentionally destroyed numerous historic and ancient artifacts and structures -- including a 2,000-year-old temple.

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Syrian forces reportedly captured al-Qubour valley, the al-Qusour Mountains, the Syriatel hill and the Palmyra castle.

"I welcome the liberation of the Palmyra archeological site, martyr city inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list, which carries the memory of the Syrian people, and the values of cultural diversity, tolerance and openness that have made this region a cradle of civilization," UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said, according to SANA, Syria's state-run news agency.

Assad's forces began trying to recapture Palmyra earlier this month with the help of Russian airstrikes, which have been bombing terrorist targets for months.

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Syria's army, though, has not fully taken control of the ancient city from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, Nasser of the Palmyra Media Centre said Friday.

"The city of Palmyra is still under ISIL control, unlike what Syrian state media are reporting. Ongoing clashes are still taking place between ISIL fighters and the Syrian army," it said. "Intensive airstrikes have been targeting several areas in Palmyra, especially the Palmyra-Deir al-Zour highway."

In the last year, militants have destroyed priceless artifacts that were once part of a cultural center in the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries. Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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