MOSCOW (AP) — Russian combat engineers arrived Thursday in Syria on a mission to clear mines in the ancient town of Palmyra, the military said.
The Defense Ministry said the sapper units were airlifted to Syria with an array of equipment, including state-of-the art robotic devices, to defuse mines at the 2,000-year-old archaeological site. Russian television stations showed Il-76 transport planes carrying the engineers landing before dawn at the Russian air base in Syria.
Sunday's recapture of Palmyra by Syrian troops under the cover of Russian airstrikes was an important victory over Islamic State extremists who operated a 10-month reign of terror there.
Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the military's General Staff said that Russian military advisers had helped plan and direct the Syrian army's operation to recapture Palmyra.
He said Russian warplanes had conducted about 500 sorties from March 7 to March 27, striking 2,000 targets around Palmyra, including artillery positions and fortifications. The Russian jets also hit IS militants as they tried to flee toward the group's strongholds of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, he added.
Russian television stations showed reports about Alexander Prokhorenko, a Russian military officer who helped direct Russian airstrikes around Palmyra. He died when he was surrounded by IS militants and drew fire on himself.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a partial drawdown of Russian warplanes from Syria earlier this month, but he has vowed to continue fighting the IS and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
A Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire in Syria that began on Feb. 27 has largely held, but Islamic State militants and the Nusra Front have been excluded from it.
Rudskoi emphasized that the Russian jets used precision weapons to avoid any damage to Palmyra's archaeological treasures. During the fighting around Palmyra, the Russian military tested its latest helicopter gunship, the Mi-28, for the first time in combat. The helicopters have recently joined the Russian forces in Syria.
Rudskoi said the seizure of Palmyra has a major strategic importance due to its location at the junction of major highways.
"The restoration of the Syrian army's control over Palmyra will make it significantly more difficult for the bandit groups to regroup and move their resources between Syria's northern and southern regions, and it will also significantly weaken their capability around Damascus and Aleppo," he said. "The loss of control over the areas rich in natural resources will also affect the terrorists' economic and financial potential and reduce their ability to buy weapons, ammunition and materials and pay the militants."
Rudskoi said Russian sapper teams will now have to search more than 180 hectares (445 acres) of both historic and residential areas in Palmyra for mines. He added the job is even more difficult because, along with standard military mines, the area is littered with a large number of booby traps and other self-made explosive devices.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Thursday urged other nations to join the effort of clearing Palmyra from mines.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.