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Russian special forces officer surrounded by Isis calls in airstrikes on himself near Palmyra, Syria

'The officer died as a hero, he drew fire onto himself after being located and surrounded by terrorists'

By Gary Fennelly

Published 25/03/2016

Smoke from the detonation of the 2,000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Syria's ancient caravan city of Palmyra. Photo released Aug. 25, 2015 (Islamic State social media account via AP)
Smoke from the detonation of the 2,000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Syria's ancient caravan city of Palmyra. Photo released Aug. 25, 2015 (Islamic State social media account via AP)

A Russian special forces officer has been killed near Palmyra in Syria after directing airstrikes to his location when he became surrounded by Isis fighters, a military representative at Russia's base in Syria has said.

The officer was said to have been identifying major targets in the area and providing coordinates to Russian aircraft. The unnamed official at the Khmeimim base in Syria told Interfax that the officer died in the line of duty after he was spotted by Isis militants and surrounded.

A road heavily damaged by shelling is seen in the historical city of Palmyra in central Syria on March 29, 2016. AFP/Getty Images
A road heavily damaged by shelling is seen in the historical city of Palmyra in central Syria on March 29, 2016. AFP/Getty Images

"An officer of Russian special operations forces was killed near Palmyra while carrying out a special task to direct Russian airstrikes at Islamic State group targets," the spokesperson said.

"The officer was carrying out a combat task in Palmyra area for a week, identifying crucial IS targets and passing exact coordinates for strikes with Russian planes.

"The officer died as a hero, he drew fire onto himself after being located and surrounded by terrorists."

The date of the incident was not revealed. Last week Isis-linked media claimed that five Russian special forces officers were killed near Palmyra.

Isis has destroyed many of the ancient ruins near the city. UNESCO denounced the destruction as a war crime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow expects the operation to retake Palmyra from Isis to be successfully concluded soon.

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The ancient Roman city of Palmyra, north-east of Damascus, Syria (SANA via AP)
The ancient Roman city of Palmyra, north-east of Damascus, Syria (SANA via AP)
(FILES) - A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows the courtyard of the sanctury of Baal Shamin in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Islamic State group jihadists on August 23, 2015 blew up the ancient temple of Baal Shamin in the UNESCO-listed Syrian city of Palmyra, the country's antiquities chief told AFP. AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EIDJOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
An undated image published by Isis group in the Homs province (Welayat Homs) on August 25, 2015, allegedly shows explosives placed on parts of columns of the Baal Shamin temple in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. AFP/Getty Images
FILES - A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows the Temple of Baal Shamin seen through two Corinthian columns in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Islamic State group jihadists on August 23, 2015 blew up the ancient temple of Baal Shamin in the UNESCO-listed Syrian city of Palmyra, the country's antiquities chief told AFP. "Daesh placed a large quantity of explosives in the temple of Baal Shamin today and then blew it up causing much damage to the temple," said Maamoun Abdulkarim, using another name for IS. IS, which controls swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, captured Palmyra on May 21, sparking international concern about the fate of the heritage site described by UNESCO as of "outstanding universal value". AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EIDJOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
This undated photo released Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015 on a social media site used by Islamic State militants, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows shows explosives in the 2,000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Syria's ancient caravan city of Palmyra. A resident of the city said the temple was destroyed on Sunday, a month after the group's militants booby-trapped it with explosives. The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO on Monday called the destruction of the temple a war crime. (Islamic State social media account via AP)

Syrian president Bashar Assad hails recapture of historic Palmyra  

Advance on Palmyra

By Press Association

Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, have pushed into Palmyra, which has been held by the Isis since May, state TV reported.

This file photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)
This file photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)

The advance came after the troops managed this week to capture several hills and high ground around the town, famed for its priceless archaeological site and Roman ruins. Syrian troops have been on the offensive for days in an attempt to capture the town.

The state TV broadcast footage of its reporter, embedded with the Syrian military, speaking live from the entrance of Palmyra and saying that as of midday Thursday, the fighting was concentrated near the archaeological site on the south-western edge of the town.

Cracks of gunfire and explosions echoed as the reporter spoke. The TV also aired footage showing soldiers walking and vehicles driving near a building that appears to have been a hotel.

An undated image, which appears to be a screenshot from a video and which was published by the Islamic State group in the Homs province (Welayat Homs) on August 25, 2015, allegedly shows Jihadists preparing explosives in the Baal Shamin temple in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. The temple was destroyed by the extremist group and news of its demolition sparked international condemnation earlier this week. AFP/Getty Images
An undated image, which appears to be a screenshot from a video and which was published by the Islamic State group in the Homs province (Welayat Homs) on August 25, 2015, allegedly shows Jihadists preparing explosives in the Baal Shamin temple in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. The temple was destroyed by the extremist group and news of its demolition sparked international condemnation earlier this week. AFP/Getty Images

An unnamed Syrian soldier told the station he had one message for the Islamic State group: "You will be crushed under the feet of the Syrian Arab Army."

Recapturing the town, a UNESCO world heritage site, would be a significant victory for Syria's army and its Russian allies. Russia withdrew most of its forces and aircraft from Syria last week after a months-long bombing campaign that succeeded in turning the tide of the war again in President Bashar Assad's favour.

Turkey-based activist Osama al-Khatib, who is originally from Palmyra, denied that Syrian troops had entered the town. He said they were still on the edge of Palmyra and that the video seen on Syrian state TV shows the area about three miles from Palmyra.

A file picture taken on January 13, 2009 shows a part of the ancient city of Palmyra.
A file picture taken on January 13, 2009 shows a part of the ancient city of Palmyra.

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Earlier in the day, Governor Talal Barazi said from the nearby city of Homs that the Syrian army has determined three directions to storm Palmyra and was clearing all roads leading into the town of mines and explosives.

File photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)
File photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)

"We might witness in the next 48 hours an overwhelming victory in Palmyra," Governor Barazi said over the phone, adding that "the army is advancing in a precise and organised way to protect what is possible of monuments and archaeological sites".

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops and Shiite militiamen helping them on the ground were facing tough resistance from Isis extremists as they try to penetrate the town's limits.

The Observatory, which monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of activists on the ground, said the IS lost over 200 militants since the government campaign to retake Palmyra began 17 days ago. It did not have figures for government losses.

Undated photo released Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015 on a social media site used by Islamic State militants, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows the demolished 2,000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Syria's ancient caravan city of Palmyra (Isis social media account via AP)
Undated photo released Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015 on a social media site used by Islamic State militants, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows the demolished 2,000-year-old temple of Baalshamin in Syria's ancient caravan city of Palmyra (Isis social media account via AP)

In neighbouring Lebanon, the Al-Manar TV station, which belongs to the militant Hezbollah group that is fighting with Syrian troops, reported that Syrian government forces were in full control of the hotels area and farms on the western edge of Palmyra on Thursday.

Palmyra attracted tens of thousands of tourists to Syria every year and is affectionately known by Syrians as the "bride of the desert". In a big blow to the government, it was overrun by the Islamic State group last May.

In Palmyra, the Isis destroyed many of the town's Roman-era relics, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the iconic Arch of Triumph, and also killed dozens of captive Syrian soldiers and dissidents from IS in public slayings at the town's grand Roman theatre and other ruins.

Along with blowing up priceless archaeological treasures, among the first destructions Isis carried out in Palmyra was the demolishing of the town's infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian government opponents had been imprisoned and tortured over the years.

The advance on Palmyra comes against the backdrop of Syrian peace talks under way in Geneva between representative of the Damascus government and the Western-backed opposition. The talks, which have been boosted by a Russia-US-brokered cease-fire that has mostly held since late February, were to adjourn on Thursday - without having achieved any apparent breakthroughs.

The negotiations are scheduled to resume later in April.

In Moscow, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Thursday for countries to boost efforts to fight Isis in Syria, Iraq and beyond in the wake of this week's deadly attacks in Brussels. He said the Brussels attack should put nations on notice that the terror threat emanating from the Middle East must be stopped.

Mr Kerry is in Moscow for talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Syria, Ukraine and the Brussels attacks. He will be seeking clarity from Mr Putin and Mr Lavrov as to where Russia stands on a political transition for Syria, particularly on the issue of Mr Assad's future.

Despite its recent drawdown in Syria, Moscow has said it is keeping its bases in Syria and would continue to carry out air strikes against the Islamic State group and other extremists. The Russian air force has supported the Assad government advance with a fierce campaign of air strikes.

Meanwhile, UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Lebanon on Thursday for a two days visit during which he is expected to meet top Lebanese officials and discuss regional matters. Lebanon, which has taken in over one million Syrian refugees, is also host to a UN peacekeeping force that maintains security along the Lebanese-Israel border.

Mr Ban is expected to address refugee support, youth unemployment, and private sector development. He will visit a Syrian refugee settlement in central Lebanon and the country's second-largest city, Tripoli, in the north.

The secretary general will be joined by World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank Group representatives on a five-day regional tour that will also take him to Jordan and Tunisia.

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