Russian-backed Syrian troops push toward Palmyra

Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said Russian aircraft based in Syria were conducting 20-25 sorties a day in support of the Palmyra offensive

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Russian warplanes on Friday flew in support of Syrian government troops in an offensive to recapture the historic town of Palmyra from the hands of ISIS, which has damaged many of the town’s world-famous archaeological sites.

Activists who monitor the Syrian conflict reported intense airstrikes in Palmyra and its suburbs. In Moscow, a Russian Defense Ministry official confirmed his country’s warplanes in Syria were flying in support of the Syrian offensive to try to retake Palmyra.

Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said Russian aircraft based in Syria were conducting 20-25 sorties a day in support of the Palmyra offensive, even though Russia this week drew down its military presence in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial pullout of Russian aircraft and forces this week, in support of the Geneva peace talks that are currently underway in Switzerland between representatives of the Syrian government and the Western-backed opposition.

Those U.N.-brokered talks, aimed at finding a way to resolve the five-year civil war, entered their fifth day on Friday.

If the Syrian army and its allies capture the historic town in the central province of Homs, it will be a major victory against IS militants in Syria.

Warplanes conducted more than a dozen airstrikes since Friday morning, according to two activist groups, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

The Observatory said troops were slowly advancing toward Palmyra, adding that both sides are bringing in reinforcements. It said there were casualties on both sides but did not give any figures.

Syrian troops and their allies have been on the offensive in the area since last week and on Tuesday captured "Hill 900," which is the highest point near Palmyra and overlooks the town.

Palmyra, home to famed Roman ruins, has been under the firm control of IS since the extremists captured it in May last year.

In October, The Associated Press obtained a video that showed the main structure of 2,000- year-old iconic Arch of Triumph in Palmyra has been destroyed. Activists have said that IS extremists blew up the arch.

ISIS also destroyed the Temple of Bel and the smaller Baalshamin temple last August. The Islamic State group considers such relics promote idolatry.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recalled some of Russia’s warplanes from Syria earlier this week, said Moscow will keep enough forces there to continue the fight against ISIS, the Nusra Front and other extremist organizations.

Russia will also continue to boost the Syrian military with weapons, training and operational guidance, Putin said.

The Russian campaign has helped turn the tide of war and allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces to make significant advances ahead of peace talks, and established Russia as a major player in the diplomatic effort to determine Syria's future.

Four Russian servicemen were killed in action in Syria since Sept. 30, when Moscow began its aerial campaign. They dead include a pilot of a Russian plane downed by Turkey, a marine killed on a mission to rescue the pilot's crewmate, a military adviser killed by shelling and a fourth man the circumstances of whose death haven't been revealed yet. In addition, officials said one soldier at the Russian base killed himself.

The Aamaq news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic State group, claimed that the extremists killed a Russian military adviser near Palmyra this week showing a video of a bloodied man in military uniform as well as an automatic rifle, telecommunication devices, a helmet and first aid kit with writings in Russian.

Meanwhile in Geneva, the spokesman for the main Syrian opposition delegation at the indirect peace talks accused the Damascus government of "procrastinating" and not engaging fully in the negotiations.

Salem Al Meslet of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee said Assad's negotiators were not serious about the indirect talks and refused to negotiate with the opposition. He said Syrian refugees would eventually return home, once the government stops bombing and killing civilians.

Al Meslet also added that the opposition hopes Putin would stop supporting Assad and stand with the Syrian people.

The U.N. special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, was hosting separate talks with the HNC and the Syrian government team on Friday in Geneva.

De Mistura said Syria’s government must do more to present its ideas about a political transition and not merely talk about principles of the peace process.

“We are in a hurry,” de Mistura told reporters after an “intense” day and meetings with Syria’s government delegation and the main opposition, the High Negotiations Committee.

De Mistura said he had given both sides homework to do so that the negotiations could go faster on Monday, and during the second week of talks he would try to build a “minimum common platform” for a better understanding on the political transition.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Friday it had registered five ceasefire violations in Syria over the previous 24 hours, Russian news agency reported.

According to RIA news agency, three violations were registered in the province of Damask, one in Aleppo and one in Latakia.
Russia, Iran discuss ceasefire

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed in a phone call with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif the implementation of ceasefire in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday.

“The need for a stable political process with the participation of representatives of the Syrian government and a wide range of opposition groups .... was stressed,” the ministry said in a statement posted on its website.

(With AP and Reuters)

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