BEIRUT, - Syrian soldiers advanced slowly in heavy fighting with Islamic State fighters near Palmyra's ancient ruins on Thursday, state media and a monitoring group said, in an offensive which could open up swathes of eastern Syria to government forces.
The recapture of Palmyra, which the Islamist militants seized in May 2015, would mark the biggest single gain for President Bashar al-Assad since Russia intervened in September and turned the tide of the five-year conflict in his favor.
Russian jets have continued to support the Syrian army and its allies as they push their offensive on the desert city, despite Moscow's recent announcement that it was withdrawing the bulk of its military forces.
A Russian special forces officer was killed in combat near Palmyra in the last week, Interfax said, suggesting the Kremlin has been more deeply engaged in the Syrian conflict than it has acknowledged.
Syria's SANA news agency said that the army and an allied militia took more high ground overlooking the city, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported advances by the army amid what it said were heavy clashes.