Syrian government forces are advancing on the ancient city of Palmyra, edging closer to recapturing it from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), state media and a monitoring group said on Wednesday.
Backed by Russian air strikes and Lebanese militia, the Syrian army was now within 3km of Palmyra, according to the state TV broadcaster.
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"God willing, within a few hours we will enter and secure the town," one officer told the Syrian Ikhbariya TV, which was broadcasting live from a road reportedly on the outskirts of Palmyra.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said government forces were just 2km away from the city.
|In Palmyra, ISIL destroyed many of the city's Roman-era relics [Sandra Auger/Reuters]
The Syrian army, backed by Russian warplanes, started a major offensive to retake control of Palmyra two weeks ago.
The city, a UNESCO World Heritage site affectionately known by Syrians as the "bride of the desert", has been in the hands of ISIL since May 2015.
In August, ISIL sent shockwaves around the world as it started destroying several famous sites in the desert city, including the more than 2,000-year-old famed Temple of Bel.
Recapturing Palmyra would be a symbolic and strategic victory for the army and its Russian allies, since whoever controls the oasis city also controls the surrounding desert - an area of some 30,000 square kilometres extending to the Iraqi border.
General Alexander Dvornikov, who commanded the Russian military in Syria, said in an interview with the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta released on Wednesday that if Palmyra falls, it could deal a devastating blow to ISIL.
Dvornikov said the ongoing Syrian army offensive will "cut the Islamic State group of forces in two and open the road to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, and create conditions for reaching the border with Iraq and establishing control over it".
Moscow withdrew most of its forces and aircraft from Syria last week, after a months-long bombing campaign played a key in part in helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army to win back ground.
Russia said, however, it was keeping its bases in the country and would continue to carry out air strikes against ISIL, al-Nusra Front and other "terrorist" groups.
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Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Syrian army would soon recapture Palmyra.
"I hope that this pearl of world civilisation, or at least what's left of it after bandits have held sway there, will be returned to the Syrian people and the entire world," the Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
On Monday, at least 26 Syrian soldiers were killed by ISIL fighters during a battle 4km west of the city, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
The latest push for Palmyra was from the west and south and Syrian forces were also closing in on the ISIL-held town of Qaryatain in central Syria, Homs governor Talal Barazi said.
"There is continuous progress by the army from all directions," Barazi told The Associated Press by phone, adding he expected "positive results" over the next few days.
The advance on Palmyra comes against the backdrop of Syrian peace talks currently under way in Geneva between representatives of the Damascus government and the opposition.