Syrian army battles jihadists near Palmyra

11th May 2016, Comments 0 comments

Syrian regime forces Wednesday battled jihadists who cut a key supply route west of ancient Palmyra, after new bombardments hit Aleppo city where a ceasefire was due to expire at midnight.

The latest fighting comes as world powers prepare to meet in Vienna next week to try to revive peace talks aimed at ending a five-year conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the Islamic State (IS) group on Tuesday cut the main road from Homs city to Palmyra just weeks after the army recaptured the city, a UNESCO world heritage site.

A military source told the SANA official news agency that the Syrian air force had carried out strikes against IS around the main facility in the Shaer gas field, northwest of Palmyra.

A security source told AFP: "Military operations are ongoing in the Shaer gas field," which is one of the biggest in the central province of Homs.

Both sides have been battling each other in the desert around Palmyra since IS was ousted from the city in late March.

The jihadist group last week seized the Shaer gas field from the regime.

President Bashar al-Assad's troops retook Palmyra with support from Russian air strikes on March 27 -- an achievement his regime celebrated with concerts in its ancient amphitheatre last week.

But today IS surrounds Palmyra from all directions except the southwest, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that IS was within 10 kilometres (around six miles) of the city.

- Regime strikes kill seven -

In Deir Ezzor province further east, at least seven civilians were killed, including a child, in regime air strikes on an area held by IS.

They died in "regime air strikes on the Shuhail district in the east of Deir Ezzor province targeting a health facility and other areas in the district", the Observatory said.

In the northern battleground city of Aleppo, an AFP correspondent said earlier the city's rebel-held east was calm after fighting overnight.

A local truce -- brokered by Russia and the United States after a spike in violence in the city last month -- was set to expire at midnight on Wednesday.

The former economic hub has been divided between the regime-held west and rebel-controlled east since 2012.

Two people were wounded early Wednesday when regime aircraft strafed rebel positions in two eastern neighbourhoods with heavy machinegun fire, an AFP correspondent reported.

Late Tuesday, government warplanes struck two other rebel-held neighbourhoods, he added.

Rebel rocket fire hit two government-controlled districts in the west of the city, the Observatory said.

Rebel sniper fire killed a garbage collector late Tuesday, SANA reported.

A local truce took effect in Aleppo last Thursday after a surge in fighting killed more than 300 people in the city and threatened to unravel a nationwide ceasefire between regime forces and non-jihadist rebels in force since February.

- Last obstetrician dies -

The truce has led to a sharp reduction in the death toll. Rebel rocket fire on government neighbourhoods killed three civilians on Sunday but otherwise it has largely held.

It has been extended twice after 11th-hour diplomatic intervention from major powers, but there was no immediate word of any new extension.

In the rebel-held bastion of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, the area's last obstetrician and gynaecologist died of wounds sustained during fighting between rebels around the city of Douma, the Observatory said.

The foreign ministry in Russia, where media reports said Wednesday one of its soldiers had been fatally wounded by rebel fire in the central province of Homs, has said global powers would gather in Vienna on May 17 to discuss the crisis in Syria.

Moscow and Washington pledged on Monday to redouble efforts to shore up the nationwide ceasefire and reach a political settlement to the conflict.

The February 27 ceasefire applies to all areas except those where IS and Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, are present.

Britain, France, the United States and Ukraine on Tuesday blocked a Russian request to add two rebel groups to a UN terror blacklist and sideline them from the peace process.

Russia had requested that Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Ahrar al-Sham be added to the sanctions list for their ties to Al-Qaeda and IS.

The main opposition group that has taken part in peace negotiations in Geneva counts Jaish al-Islam member Mohammed Alloush as its chief negotiator.

Since it erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011, the civil war has also pushed millions to flee the country.

© 2016 AFP

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