Isil forced to defend on two fronts as the Iraqis move to retake Mosul
Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30
Isil was under pressure on two fronts last night as Syrian regime forces fought towards the heart of Palmyra and Iraq's military began its long-awaited attempt to retake Mosul.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) ordered the 15,000 remaining civilians in Palmyra to flee as Bashar al-Assad's forces pushed in from the west under the cover of Russian jets.
The regime's progress was reportedly slowed by fierce resistance from jihadist fighters and rings of land mines planted in the path of their advance.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of government troops apparently near a recaptured hotel.
One soldier boasted to Isil: "You will be crushed under the feet of the Syria Arab Army."
The jihadist group responded with video on social media appearing to show its fighters driving unchallenged through residential parts of the city.
Meanwhile, a Syrian government antiquities official said he was balancing "fear and joy" at the thought of the ancient ruins of Palmyra which may soon be back in government hands.
"I am so happy that the liberation is imminent ... and that the nightmare is nearly over, before it is too late, before the total destruction of the ancient city," said Maamoun Abdelkarim.
Isil fighters began destroying the World Heritage site's relics soon after they captured the city in May 2015.
Archaeologists have been unable to enter since and the world is yet to learn of the scale of the historical destruction.
About 480km east of Palmyra, the Iraqi military said it had begun operations aimed at liberating Mosul, the country's second largest city.
Isil has controlled the largely Sunni city for nearly two years, giving its fighters ample time to build defences and set up booby traps for Iraqi forces.
The offensive is likely to be long and bloody and the Iraqis will be heavily reliant on US air support.
Iraqi troops dropped their weapons and fled when Isil attacked the city in June 2014 and the new offensive will be a test of their training and resolve.
Kurdish fighters will take a supporting role in the offensive so as not to further inflame tensions with the Sunni Arab population in and around Mosul.
The operation began with an assault on Isil-held villages east of the city. The offensive was announced on Iraqi state television but it could take six months or longer to actually take back the city.