DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A week after taking back the historic town of Palmyra, Syrian troops and their allies on Sunday captured another town controlled by the Islamic State group in central Syria, state media reported.
The push into the town of Qaryatain took place under the cover of Russian airstrikes and dealt another setback to the IS extremists in Syria. An activist group that monitors the Syrian civil war said that government forces are in control of most of the town after IS fighters withdrew to its eastern outskirts.
The advance came a week after Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra from IS and is strategically significant for the government side. The capture of Qaryatain deprives IS of a main base in central Syria and could be used by government forces in the future to launch attacks on IS-held areas near the Iraqi border.
Qaryatain used to be home to a sizable Christian population and lies midway between Palmyra and the capital, Damascus. Activists said last summer that Qaryatain had a mixed population of around 40,000 Sunni Muslims and Christians, as well as thousands of internally displaced people who had fled from the nearby city of Homs. Many of the Christians fled the town after it came under IS attack.
Dozens of Qaryatain's Christians and other residents have been abducted by the extremists. While the town was under IS control, some were released, others were made to sign pledges to pay a tax imposed on non-Muslims.
While IS extremists blew up and destroyed some of the world's most precious relics at Palmyra's archaeological sites during their 10-month reign there, the ancient Saint Eliane Monastery near Qaryatain was also bulldozed and destroyed shortly after IS took the town in August.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million people.
The Syrian army command said in a statement that troops have "restored security and stability to Qaryatain and farms surrounding it." The statement, read by an army general on state TV, said the oil and gas pipelines in the area will be secured and IS supply routes between eastern desert and the Qalamoun region will be cut.
A Syrian army general, speaking live from Qaryatain with the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, said troops are now dismantling bombs placed by extremists and will prepare to launch fresh attacks on areas held by IS.
"Fighting was going from one house to another," another army officer told Al-Mayadeen TV also speaking from inside Qaryatain. He added that IS had suicide attackers who were trying to block the push by the army into the town.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said intense fighting was underway in Qaryatain as government troops fight to capture all parts of the town. The Observatory's chief Rami Abdurrahman said that IS fighters are still in control of small areas east of the town but "are on the verge of collapse." Abdurrahman added that the extremists are withdrawing toward eastern parts of the mountainous Qalamoun region.
The Observatory reported later in the day that IS fighters have withdrawn from much of the town toward the eastern suburbs of Qaryatain.
IS has suffered major defeats in Syria in recent months amid intense airstrikes by Russian warplanes.
Earlier Sunday, the Observatory reported that fighting in northern Syria the previous day killed several fighters belonging to the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group. Hezbollah has been fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's troops in Syria's civil war.
The Observatory said 12 Hezbollah fighters were killed and dozens were wounded in Saturday's attack by militants led by al-Qaida's Syria branch — known as the Nusra Front — on the northern village of al-Ais.
In southern Lebanon, social media postings on Sunday carried photos of seven Hezbollah fighters said to be among those killed in al-Ais.
Though Nusra Front is not part of a U.S.-Russia-engineered truce between the Syrian government forces and Western-backed rebels, the fighting has threated to undermine the cease-fire that has largely held for over a month.
Separately, a monitoring group said a leader of the Nusra Front was killed in a U.S. air strike Sunday in a northern part of the country along with his son and several other people.
The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi websites, says that Abu Firas al-Souri, a spokesman for the Nusra Front, was killed in the attack in the province of Idlib. The report could not be independently verified.
Mroue reported from Beirut.