DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) The Latest on fighting against Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq (all times local):
Russian news agencies are citing a military official as saying that a Russian officer has been killed in fighting near the Syrian city of Palmyra.
The state news agencies Tass and RIA Novosti said an official at Russia’s Hemeimeem air base in Syria reported the death on Thursday and said it occurred as the officer was directing air strikes near the settlement of Tadmor on positions of the Islamic State group.
The official, whose name was not given, said the officer was spotted by fighters and surrounded.
The date of the death was not specified.
Russia’s Defense Ministry says its warplanes have struck targets around the ancient city of Palmyra in support of the Syrian army’s offensive there.
The ministry said Russian warplanes hit 146 targets Sunday through Wednesday, killing 320 militants. It said in Thursday’s statement that Russian jets also destroyed five tanks, six artillery systems, two ammunition depots and 15 vehicles.
Backed by Russian strikes, Syrian government forces reached Palmyra, which has been held by the Islamic State group since May.
President Vladimir Putin last week ordered a pullout of some Russian warplanes from Syria, but said that strikes against IS and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front will continue. Those groups have been excluded from a Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire that began on Feb. 27 and has largely held.
A Syrian government official says he hopes that the “nightmare” of Palmyra is over after reports emerged that the army has reached the historic town, which was held by Islamic State militants since May.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, who heads the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, says he hopes the damage inflicted by IS militants on the town’s archaeological treasures will not be worse than initially thought.
Many of the Palmyra’s Roman-era relics, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the iconic Arch of Triumph, have been blown up by IS. The town, a UNESCO world heritage site, has been held by IS since May.
Abdulkarim said on Thursday that the battle for Palmyra is a “cultural battle for the entire world and everyone who believes in common human heritage.”
Syrian state TV says government forces have entered the historic town of Palmyra, which has been held by the Islamic State group since last May.
The TV is quoting its reporter embedded with the troops as saying that around midday on Thursday, the fighting was concentrated near the archaeological site on the southwestern edge of the town.
The TV aired footage showing soldiers walking and SUVs driving near a building that appears to have been a hotel.
A Syrian soldier told the TV station that he has a message for the IS: “You will be crushed under the feet of the Syrian Arab Army.”
Syrian troops have been on the offensive for days in an attempt to capture the town that is home to one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.
A Syrian official and a an opposition monitoring group say Syrian government forces are 1 kilometer (half mile) away from the heart of Palmyra, an ancient town controlled by the Islamic State group.
Homs governor Talal Barazi tells The Associated Press that the army has determined three directions to storm the town and is now clearing all roads leading to Palmyra from mines and explosives.
Barazi said Thursday he’s predicting an “overwhelming victory in Palmyra” within the next 48 hours.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the troops are facing tough resistance from IS extremists as they try to penetrate the town’s eastern and southern limits.
The Islamic State group has controlled Palmyra since May and has destroyed many of its famed archaeological sites.
An Iraqi military spokesman says the long-awaited military operation to recapture the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State militants “has begun.”
The spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, says Iraqi forces retook several villages on the outskirts of the town of Makhmour, east of Mosul, on Thursday morning.
Rasool says the U.S.-led international coalition is providing air support. He wouldn’t divulge more details.
It was not immediately clear how long such a complex and taxing operation could take. Mosul lies 360 kilometers, or 225 miles, northwest of Baghdad.
It’s Iraq’s second-largest city and it fell to Islamic State group during the militants’ June 2014 onslaught. Mosul is also the largest city in the Islamic State group’s self-declared caliphate.
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