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Islamic State forces kill 26 Syrian soldiers near Palmyra: monitor

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamic State fighters killed 26 Syrian soldiers on Monday west of Palmyra, a monitoring group said, after days of advances by government forces backed by Syrian and Russian air cover.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the Syrian army would soon recapture Palmyra from Islamic State, which has held the desert city for nearly a year.

Palmyra has both symbolic and military value as the site of ancient Roman-era ruins - mostly destroyed by the ultra-hardline Islamist group - and because of its location on a highway linking mainly government-held western Syria to Islamic State’s eastern stronghold.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting took place about 4 km (2 miles) west of Palmyra.

It was not possible to independently verify the death toll. Syria’s state news agency SANA said the army and allied forces, backed by the Syrian air force, carried out “concentrated operations” against Islamic State around Palmyra and the Islamic State-held town of al-Qaryatayn, about 100 km further west.

After more than five months of air strikes in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin announced the withdrawal last week of most Russian forces.

But Russian planes have continued to support army operations near Palmyra, according to the Observatory and regional media, and Putin said on Thursday he hoped that the city would soon fall to the Syrian government.

“I hope that this pearl of world civilization, or at least what’s left of it after bandits have held sway there, will be returned to the Syrian people and the entire world,” he said.

In southern Syria, a militant group loyal to Islamic State seized a village near the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Monday from al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, the Observatory said.

It said the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade captured the village of Tasil, about 10 km (6 miles) from the Golan Heights and a similar distance from the Jordanian border.

Abu Saleh al-Musalima, Nusra Front commander in the south of the country, was killed in the fighting, the Observatory said, as well as three insurgents from other Islamist factions fighting alongside the group, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

Islamic State and the Nusra Front are both excluded from an internationally backed limited truce in Syria, which has been in place for nearly three weeks to allow peace talks to take place in Geneva between the government and opposition groups.

Reporting by Dominic Evans; editing by Ralph Boulton