Syrian official says situation in Palmyra 'under control'

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A Syrian official said Sunday that the situation is "fully under control" in Palmyra despite breaches by Islamic State militants who pushed into the historic town a day earlier.

Syrian opposition activists also confirmed that militants withdrew from a government building and other areas they had seized Saturday in the northern part of the town as clashes continued.

Palmyra is home to one of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Middle East, renowned for its Roman-era colonnades and 2,000-year-old ruins. The militants entered from the north and have not reached the ruins southwest of Palmyra.

Islamic State militants have destroyed and looted archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria. The group's advance on Palmyra has sparked alarm in the region and beyond.

Gov. Talal Barazi of Homs province said Syrian troops recaptured two hills from the militants late Saturday. He told The Associated Press that army reinforcements have been sent to shore up existing troops.

"Palmyra is safe and the road linking Homs with Palmyra is absolutely safe," he later told the state-run news agency SANA. The agency said the army inflicted heavy losses on militants in the Islamic State-held villages of Sukhneh and Arak northeast of Palmyra.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 295 people have been killed since the Islamic State group launched its assault around Sukhneh and Palmyra five days ago. The dead include at least 123 soldiers and allied militiamen, 115 Islamic State members and 57 civilians killed in the clashes or later killed by Islamic State militants, the Observatory said. It was not immediately possible to corroborate the Observatory's account.

An opposition media collective for Palmyra said life inside the town was normal and stores and businesses were gradually reopening. Clashes continued in surrounding areas.

The fall of Palmyra to Islamic State militants would be an enormous blow for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, not only because of its cultural significance but also because it would open the road to Homs and the capital, Damascus.

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