DAMASCUS, Syria – 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. However, an activist group that monitors the Syrian civil war said the government forces for the moment control more than half of Qaryatain but have not fully secured the town.
The advance came a week after Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra from IS and is strategically significant for the government side. The town of 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 site during their 10-month reign of terror 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.
State news agency SANA said government forces were currently dismantling bombs placed by extremists inside Qaryatain. The report said Syrian troops were fully in control of the town after "wiping out Daesh terrorists inside it," referring to IS by the group's Arabic acronym.
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 IS fighters are still in control of eastern parts and southeastern areas of the town but "are on the verge of collapse." Abdurrahman added that some of the extremists have started withdrawing toward eastern parts of the mountainous Qalamoun region.
IS has suffered major defeats in Syria over the past 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 held for over a month.
Mroue reported from Beirut.