The recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra by Syrian government forces scores an important victory over Islamic State fighters who waged a 10-month reign of terror there and marks the first major defeat for the extremist group since an international agreement to battle terrorism in the fractured nation took effect last year.
The city known to Syrians as the "Bride of the Desert" is famous for its 2,000-year-old ruins that once drew tens of thousands of visitors each year before the Islamic State group destroyed many of the monuments.
The extent of the destruction remained unclear after government troops took the town in central Syria on Sunday. Initial footage on Syrian state TV showed widespread rubble and shattered statues. But Palmyra's grand colonnades appeared to be in relatively good condition.
The government forces were supported by Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen and Russian air power. The Islamic State now faces pressure on several fronts as Kurdish ground forces advance on its territory in Syria's north and government forces, from Palmyra, have a new path to its de facto capital, Raqqa, and the contested eastern city of Deir el-Zour.
International airstrikes have pounded IS territory, killing two top leaders in recent weeks, according to the Pentagon. Those strikes have also inflicted dozens of civilian casualties.
In neighboring Iraq, meanwhile, government forces backed by the U.S. and Iran are preparing a ground offensive to retake the country's second largest city, Mosul, from IS fighters.
The fall of Palmyra comes a month after a partial cease-fire in Syria's civil war came into force. The truce was sponsored by the United States and Russia in part to allow the government and international community to focus on al-Qaida styled militants, among them the IS group.
In comments reported on state TV, Syrian President Bashar Assad described the Palmyra operation as a "significant achievement" offering "new evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy espoused by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism."
IS drove government forces from Palmyra in a matter of days last May and later demolished some of its best-known monuments, including two large temples dating back more than 1,800 years and a Roman triumphal archway.
Read also: Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers – and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting
State TV showed the rubble left over from the destruction of the Temple of Bel as well as the damaged archway, the supports of which were still standing. It said a statue of Zenobia, the third century queen who ruled an independent state from Palmyra and figures strongly in Syrian lore, was missing.
Artifacts inside the city's museum also appeared heavily damaged on state TV. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was decapitated, and the museum's basement appeared to have been dynamited, the hall littered with broken statues.
Still, state media reported that a lion statue dating back to the second century, previously thought to have been destroyed by IS militants, was found in a damaged but recoverable condition.
Source: Associated Press