Government forces backed by Russian airstrikes drove Islamic State fighters from Palmyra on Sunday, state media and an opposition monitoring group said, ending the group’s reign of terror over a town whose famed 2,000-year-old ruins once attracted tens of thousands of visitors.
Government forces had been on the offensive for nearly three weeks to try to retake the central town, which fell to the extremists last May. Their advance marks the latest setback suffered by IS, which has come under mounting pressure on several fronts in Iraq and Syria.
State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that “the armed forces and groups of popular defence committees have fully taken control of Palmyra.” The popular defence committees are militias allied with the government.
The military official added that troops are now dismantling explosive booby traps planted by IS.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed IS has lost the town, saying there were many deaths among the extremists. It added that some of the extremists withdrew from Palmyra toward the town of Sukhna and other areas in Homs province.
Watch | Islamic State faces biggest defeat ever as Syrian army recaptures Palmyra
The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman said three weeks of fighting killed more than 400 IS fighters, as well as 180 troops and pro-government militiamen.
On Saturday, Russia’s defence minister said Russian jets carried out 40 air sorties near Palmyra in the past day, hitting 158 targets and killing over 100 militants.
Russian airstrikes have helped President Bashar Assad’s forces advance on a number of fronts in recent months.
Syrian state TV interrupted its normal programs to air a documentary about the town and its archaeological sites. The TV earlier aired national songs as well as videos released earlier by IS showing its fighters committing atrocities in Syria and Iraq.
“It’s 10 in the morning Palmyra time. Our morning is victorious,” a TV announcer said.
Later a TV reporter spoke live from inside Palmyra, showing troops in the center of the town. Some of the nearby buildings had been reduced to rubble.
Palmyra, affectionately known as the “Bride of the Desert,” used to attract tens of thousands of tourists every year.
IS drove out government forces in a matter of days and later demolished some of the best-known monuments in the UNESCO world heritage site. The extremists believe that the ancient ruins promote idolatry.
The militants also demolished the town’s infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian government opponents were reported to have been tortured.