Syrian troops have entered the Islamic State-held town of Palmyra, according to state television. The city, located strategically between the capital of Damascus and the city of Deir al Zour, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Syrian government, backed by Russian air support, began its efforts to retake the town earlier this month.
On Thursday, state television reported that the fighting was concentrated near the archaeological site on the southwestern edge of Palmyra.
Islamic State seized the city and its ancient ruins last May amid an outcry of international condemnation and concern regarding the status of the city’s ancient temples and buildings.
Islamic State destroyed the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumph and other ancient buildings. The group claims that such structures are idolatrous and must be destroyed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops, along with Shiite militiamen, were facing tough resistance from Islamic State fighters as they tried to enter Palmyra.
The Observatory said the Islamic State lost over 200 militants since the operation campaign to retake the town began over two weeks ago.
Before the recent offensive, Islamic State warned the residents of Palmyra to flee. It is estimated that at least 15,000 people remained in the area after the jihadist group captured it.
Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdelkarim said the recapture of Palmyra was “imminent” and vowed to rebuild the monuments Islamic State destroyed.
“I am so happy that the liberation is imminent… and that the nightmare is nearly over, before it is too late, before the total destruction of the ancient city,” Abdelkarim told the AFP news agency.
Before the civil war started in 2011, it is believed that 150,000 tourists visited the ruins every year.
The recapture of the town would be a strategic victory for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that had recaptured several towns over the past months and made gains with the help of Russian air support.