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Russia bombs Syria's Palmyra after fresh IS advance

Reports of renewed fighting in the iconic city come days after IS claimed to have downed a Russian helicopter nearby, killing two pilots
Pro-government forces patrol the ruins of Palmyra earlier this year (AFP)

Russian fighter jets bombed Syria’s Palmyra after Islamic State (IS) militants advanced into the city again, months after they were routed from the area in a symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies.

IS militants infiltrated areas in east Palmyra and destroyed several houses on Sunday night, activists from the Palmyra Co-ordination Committee said.

The militants, the local committee said, withdrew to an unknown location without being pursued by the Syrian army, which has controlled the city since March, when IS was expelled from the iconic ancient site and nearby modern city.

On Tuesday, Russian forces responded by bombing various areas of the city, killing "a great number" of personnel, the country's defence ministry said.

Six Tupolev bombers flew out from a base in Russia on Tuesday morning and "made a concentrated strike with fragmentation bombs on (IS) facilities" east of Palmyra and the towns of Sukhna and Arak, it said on Facebook.

Russia gave advance warning to the US-led coalition, which is conducting a separate bombing campaign in the war-torn country, the ministry said.

The IS were forced out of Palmyra by Syrian regime forces in March, but Arak and Sukhna, both seized in the spring of 2015, remain in the rebels' hands.

Arak, located 35 kilometres (21 miles) east of Palmyra, is a small town that has strategic importance because of a nearby oil field, while Sukhna, 70 km northeast of Palmyra, is an IS bastion.

Russia said its strikes targeted sites that were "recently detected and confirmed through several intelligence channels."

The raids killed "a great number of personnel" and destroyed a field camp as well as three ammunition depots, three tanks and a dozen other vehicles, Moscow said.

IS’s propaganda arm, the Amaq Agency, had earlier claimed that the group’s militants were active in the south of the city, destroying a Syrian army missile launcher.

Reports of a renewed IS advance towards Palmyra, home to a notorious prison known to have been the scene of the torture of political prisoners during the reign of former president Hafez al-Assad, come after IS shot down a Russian helicopter in the area on Saturday, killing two pilots.

The defence ministry said a Syrian helicopter flown by Riafagat Khabibulin and Yevgeni Dolgin "came under fire" from IS on Saturday and crashed.

The pilots "had used up all their ammunition and were on their way back when they came under the fire of terrorists and crashed," the defence ministry said, adding: "The crew died."

The statement did not specify the exact location of the crash. 

An IS statement said that its militants had downed the helicopter when it “attempted to attack their positions”.

Syrian government forces entered Palmyra, home to a world-famous UNESCO world heritage site, in March, ending an IS occupation that had begun in May 2015.

The Syrian army advance, which lasted nearly a month, was supported by intense Russian air strikes.

The city's recapture by pro-Assad forces and their allies was celebrated by prominent figures across the world, including the head of UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for maintaining world heritage sites.