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Syrian army, Islamic State wage fierce battle south of Damascus

Syrian government forces have killed 68 IS militants over last few days, monitor says
Smoke billows over Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp during fighting on 27 April (AFP)

The Syrian army and its allies engaged in a fierce battle on Saturday with Islamic State (IS) group militants in an enclave south of Damascus held by IS.

The Syrian government forces have killed 68 IS militants over the past few days, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday. At least 79 government fighters have also been killed, the Observatory said.

In spite of the heavy losses, IS has managed to fend off most of the army’s attacks while inflicting many casualties on the government forces, AMN news said on its website.

Reuters witnesses, a war monitor and state television reported intense fighting including artillery bombardment and small-arms fire.

The army had made broad advances, said state television. The monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the army had gained control of several buildings in the densely built-up area.

Footage on state TV showed tanks rolling across an open area of fields to the edge of the enclave, which includes parts of al-Qadam district, al-Hajar al-Aswad and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.

Syrian government forces advanced on Saturday, state media SANA said, retaking control of Qadam's Mazaniyeh area after destroying IS fortified positions and "inflicting losses of personnel and equipment".

TV showed uniformed soldiers moving through battered streets with dense clouds of black smoke overhead, while the whizz and crash of artillery fire, the rattle of small arms fire and deep echoing blasts could all be heard.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces this month defeated rebels in their biggest stronghold near Damascus in Eastern Ghouta, and the government has since then focused on ending resistance in several smaller pockets near the Syrian capital.

IS lost most of its territory in Syria last year in the face of two rapid offensives, one by the Syrian army backed by Russia and Iran, the other by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States.

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It has held on to some areas of desert in eastern Syria as well as to the pocket in south Damascus and one other area near the borders with Jordan and Israel, which is held by a group that has pledged allegiance to it.

Russia's entry into the war in 2015 has propelled Assad to the succession of victories that have dashed any rebel hopes of ousting him militarily, but rebel groups still hold large areas of northwest and southwest Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday after meeting in Moscow with his counterparts from Turkey and Iran that the three countries need to help Syria's government clear its country of terrorists.

Turkish Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Russia, Iran and Turkey needed to work with the United Nations to ensure the legitimacy of any political solution in Syria, as any military solution would be illegal and unsustainable.

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