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Syria forces retake Palmyra in major victory over IS

Palmyra (Syria) (AFP) - Syrian troops recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group and pledged to build on the win with an advance against other jihadist strongholds.

President Bashar al-Assad hailed the victory as "important," as his Russian counterpart and ally Vladimir Putin congratulated Damascus for retaking the UNESCO world heritage site.

An AFP correspondent inside Palmyra said monuments destroyed by the jihadists, including the iconic Temple of Bel, were in pieces but much of the ancient city was intact.

Residential neighbourhoods in the adjacent modern town, where 70,000 people lived before the war, were deserted and damage was widespread, the correspondent said.

Syrian soldiers, pro-government militiamen, and Russian fighters strolled among the ruins in awe, while a group of regime fighters kicked around a football in the middle of a street.

But one Syrian fighter stood sobbing loudly in the old ruins.

"I'm sad to see some of the old city destroyed, but I'm also weeping for my brother, who died in the battle here," the soldier said.

"By taking the city, I feel I've avenged his death."

Islamic State jihadists sparked a global outcry when they started destroying Palmyra's treasured monuments, which they consider idolatrous, after seizing it in May 2015.

But Syria's antiquities chief on Sunday said the priceless artefacts had survived better than feared.

"We were expecting the worst. But the landscape, in general, is in good shape," Maamoun Abdulkarim told AFP from Damascus.

"We could have completely lost Palmyra... The joy I feel is indescribable."

The Syrian army said that Sunday's victory meant the city would now serve as a base to "broaden operations" against IS, including in its stronghold of Raqa and Deir Ezzor further east.

- Symbolic, strategic prize -

Backed by Russian air strikes, Syrian troops and allied militia launched a major offensive to retake Palmyra this month.

The city is both a symbolic and strategic prize for Assad's forces, as it provides control of the surrounding desert extending all the way to the Iraqi border.

At least 400 IS fighters were killed in the battle for the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. On the government side, 188 troops and militiamen were killed.

"That's the heaviest losses that IS has sustained in a single battle since its creation" in 2013, the director of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

A military source told AFP on Sunday that IS militants had retreated towards the east as the army made its final push.

After seizing Palmyra last year, IS blew up two of the site's treasured temples, its triumphal arch and a dozen tower tombs, in a campaign of destruction that UNESCO described as a war crime.

The jihadists used Palmyra's ancient theatre as a venue for public executions and also murdered the city's 82-year-old former antiquities chief.

Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, drew some 150,000 tourists a year before Syria's civil war and is known to Syrians as the "Pearl of the Desert".

Syrian state television broadcast footage from inside Palmyra's famed museum, showing jagged pieces of sculptures on the ground and blanketed in dust.

- Gains against IS -

IS, behind a string of attacks in the West including last week's Brussels bombings, is under growing pressure from Syrian and Iraqi forces determined to retake bastions of its self-proclaimed "caliphate".

On Thursday, the Iraqi army announced the launch of an offensive to eventually recapture second city Mosul, held by the jihadists since June 2014.

Russian forces, which intervened in support of longtime ally Assad last September, were heavily involved in the Palmyra offensive despite a major drawdown last week.

Russian warplanes carried out 40 combat sorties around Palmyra in the last 24 hours, striking 117 "terrorist targets" and killing 80 IS fighters, Moscow's defence ministry said Sunday.

Putin telephoned Assad to congratulate the Syrian leader, adding that "successes such as the liberation of Palmyra would be impossible without Russia's support," a Kremlin spokesman said.

Assad said the victory was "fresh proof of the efficiency of the Syrian army and its allies in fighting terrorism".

IS and its jihadist rival, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, are not party to a ceasefire in force across Syria since February 27.

The truce has brought relative quiet to many areas across Syria, where more than 270,000 have been killed and millions had fled their homes in the last five years.

The Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that 363 civilians had been killed since the truce went into effect -- the lowest monthly toll in four years.