Syrian Forces Seize IS-Held Town Near Palmyra

BEIRUT (Reuters) -
In this picture taken Friday, smoke rises in the distance as damage is seen at an historical site in Palmyra in the central city of Homs, Syria. (AP Photo)
Smoke rises in the distance as damage is seen at an historical site in Palmyra in the central city of Homs, Syria, Friday. (AP Photo)

Syrian and allied forces backed by Russian air strikes drove Islamic State out of the town of al-Qaryatain on Sunday after encircling it over the past few days, Syria’s military command said.

Surrounded by hills, al-Qaryatain is 60 miles west of the ancient city of Palmyra, which government forces recaptured from Islamic State last Sunday.

Al-Qaryatain had been held by the terrorist group since late August. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been trying to retake al-Qaryatain and other pockets of Islamic State control to reduce the jihadist group’s ability to project military power into the heavily populated western region of Syria, where Damascus and other main cities are located.

Syrian state media said the army and its allies “fully restored security and stability to al-Qaryatain after killing the last remaining groups of Daesh terrorists” in the town, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Islamic State terrorists retreating from Palmyra laid thousands of mines which the Syrian army is now clearing before civilians can return.

When Islamic State took over al-Qaryatain last August, it demolished a Christian monastery and took around 200 of the town’s residents prisoner, transferring some of them to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital.

Islamic State still has complete control over Raqqa and runs most of Deir al-Zor province in eastern Syria, which borders Iraq.

A fragile “cessation of hostilities” truce has held in Syria for over a month as the various parties to the conflict try to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war.

But the truce excludes Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Air and land attacks by Syrian and allied forces continue in parts of Syria where the government says the terrorist groups are present.