Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, battled the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group around Palmyra on Monday, after taking back control of the ancient city.
ISIL’s loss of Palmyra on Sunday amounts to one of the biggest setbacks for the group since it declared a caliphate in 2014 across large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian army said the city, home to some of the most extensive ruins of the Roman Empire, would become a “launchpad” for operations against ISIL strongholds in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor further east across a vast expanse of desert.
Syrian state media said on Monday that Palmyra’s military airport was now open to air traffic after the army cleared the surrounding area of fighters belonging to ISIL, also known as ISIS.
There were clashes northeast of Palmyra between ISIL fighters and forces allied to the government, supported by Syrian and Russian air strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Air strikes, reportedly carried out by Russian jets, also targeted the road running east out of Palmyra towards Deir Ezzor, it said.
Syria troops dismantle booby traps
Although most of the ISIL force fled Palmyra on Sunday, there were still some fighters in the city, the UK-based Observatory said.
Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said most residents fled before the government offensive and it had not heard about any civilian deaths.
Syrian state-run television broadcast from inside Palmyra, showing empty streets and badly damaged buildings.
Syrian military officials said that bomb squads were working on removing mines and bombs planted by ISIL in the city.
ISIL, during its rule of Palmyra, killed scores of people and destroyed invaluable artifacts dating back more than 1,800 years, along with a famed Roman triumphal archway.
With Russian support, Assad’s troops have made steady gains in recent months against ISIL and other groups it is fighting.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of some fighter jets from Syria, but said that strikes against ISIL and the al-Nusra Front would continue.
Those groups have been excluded from a Russian and US-brokered ceasefire that began on February 27 and has largely held.