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BEIRUT (AP) – Islamic State militants recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from Syrian troops Sunday, according to both sides in the battle, scoring a major advance after a year of setbacks in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
In winning back Palmyra, the extremist group appeared to be taking advantage of the Syrian and Russian preoccupation with Aleppo, timing its attack to coincide with a major government offensive to capture the last remaining opposition-held neighborhoods in the northern city.
Palmyra, with its towering 2,000-year-old ruins, holds mostly symbolic meaning in the wider civil war, although its location in central Syria also gives it some strategic significance.
Islamic State militants re-entered the city Saturday for the first time since they were expelled by Syrian and Russian forces amid much fanfare nine months ago. The government’s first important win against the Islamic State group in the historic city gave Damascus the chance to try to position itself as part of the global anti-terrorism campaign.
The militants had spent 10 months in Palmyra, during which they blew up a number of temples and caused other destruction — severing the heads of statues and partially damaging two temples and famous arch.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s official for antiquities and museums, said his department had transferred the contents of Palmyra’s museum to Damascus, but that he still worries about the safety of the ruins from the IS militants.
“I fear they will be more vengeful,” Abdulkarim told The Associated Press.
Palmyra was a major tourist attraction before Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
Sunday’s takeover came hours after government troops and Russian air raids pushed the group out the city’s perimeter.
IS militants later regrouped and attacked from multiple sides, forcing government troops to retreat.
The militants went door to door, looking for any remaining forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, opposition activists in the city said.
Homs provincial Gov. Talal Barazi told the pan-Arab Mayadeen news channel that the IS attack on Palmyra is a “desperate” reaction to the Syrian government’s recent military “victories.”
Scores of Syrian troops reportedly have been killed in fighting around Palmyra in recent days. While a distraction from the battle for Aleppo, it is unlikely to affect the government’s final push on the last rebel-held neighborhoods in the northern city. By Sunday evening, there was no sign the army was shifting significant resources from Aleppo.
The government and its allies reportedly have mobilized some 40,000 fighters for Aleppo.
“I don’t think the regime would withdraw forces from Aleppo to Palmyra and risk losing Aleppo,” said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group. “I think the regime’s priority now is to finish the battle for Aleppo before the end of the month for sure. As for Palmyra, the whole international community would stand by it against IS.”
In the last year, IS has suffered defeats in both Syria and Iraq, losing several towns and cities it had captured in 2014.
It is now under attack in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the last major urban center it controls in the country. Since the Mosul offensive began nearly two months ago, Iraqi and US-led coalition forces have killed or gravely wounded more than 2,000 IS fighters, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. He made his remarks at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at Qayara air base in Iraq.