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Syrian army expects to retake Palmyra 'within hours': TV

Columns are seen in the historical city of Palmyra, Syria, June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian soldiers and their allies advanced to within 1 km (half a mile) of Palmyra on Thursday and soldiers speaking from the outskirts of the historic city said they hoped to recapture it from Islamic State fighters within hours.

The Syrian army is trying to retake Palmyra, which the ultra-hardline Islamist militants seized in May, to open a road to the mostly IS-held eastern province of Deir al-Zor.

The recapture of the desert city would be one of the most prominent successes for President Bashar al-Assad since Russia launched a military intervention in September which turned the tide of Syria’s civil war in his favor.

Palmyra is the site of ancient Roman-era temples and colonnades - many of them destroyed by the militants - as well as being a strategic link between the west and east of Syria.

“We are 850 meters from Palmyra city. In a few hours(government) forces will declare the city of Palmyra completely secure, God willing,” one soldier told Ikhbariya television channel, in comments echoed by his comrades on the front.

One of the soldiers said they had cleared around 120 explosives from the ‘Palmyra Triangle’ road junction area as they approached the city from the west.

Syrian television quoted the field commander as saying the road into Palmyra was now open to government forces after they took control of hills overlooking its approaches.

Earlier, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported clashes on the outskirts of the city as government forces, backed by Russian and Syrian warplanes, made advances.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said last week he was withdrawing most Russian forces, predicted on Thursday that the Syrian army would retake Palmyra soon.

Reporting by Dominic Evans and John Davison; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Hugh Lawson