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Syrian forces recapture Palmyra once again

Bolstered by Russian air strikes, Syrian forces retake ancient city of Palmyra, which has traded hands with IS several times
Many of Palmyra's structures have been destroyed (AFP)

Syrian troops, backed by Russian jets, once again recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) group on Thursday, the Kremlin and the army said.

Bolstered by air strikes and ground troops from their ally Moscow, Syrian forces battled through the desert for weeks to reach Palmyra.

The oasis city has traded hands several times during Syria's six-year civil war and become a symbol of IS's wanton destruction of priceless cultural heritage in areas under its control.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin of Palmyra's recapture, a Kremlin spokesman told news agencies in Moscow.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said the militants had totally withdrawn from the desert city but not before mining several areas. 

"The Syrian army is still clearing neighbourhoods of mines and has not spread out into the whole city yet," said its director, Rami Abdel Rahman.

An army statement carried on state news agency SANA said its forces had "regained control over Palmyra and surrounding territory after a series of successful military operations".

The group first seized Palmyra in May 2015 and began to systematically destroy and loot the Unesco world heritage site's monuments and temples.

IS militants were driven out in March 2016 but recaptured the town last December.

The latest offensive to retake the city saw government forces break through its western limits late on Wednesday, forcing IS militants to retreat into eastern districts, according to the observatory.

Before IS first entered the city, Palmyra boasted temples, colonnaded alleys and elaborately decorated tombs that were among the best preserved classical monuments in the Middle East.

But many of the structures have been destroyed and much of the heritage looted for sale on the black market.

Moscow's support has been key in the Syrian army's Palmyra push, and its warplanes continued to bombard IS positions inside and near the city on Thursday, the Observatory reported.

A decades-old ally of Damascus, Moscow launched an air campaign in September 2015 in support of government forces.

After losing ground in the early years of the war, the Syrian government regained significant territory - including by pushing rebel forces out of second city Aleppo last year - thanks in large part to Russian support.

Palmrya is a UNESCO heritage site (AFP)

On another battlefront against IS, fighters of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced they would cede several villages to the government as part of a deal brokered by Russia to avoid conflict with Turkey.

Turkey launched a cross-border operation in late August that it said aimed to counter both IS and the SDF, which is dominated by Kurdish fighters that Ankara sees as "terrorists". 

The surprise announcement by the SDF marks the first time that US-supported fighters have offered to cede territory to government forces.