Syrian troops drive Islamic State out of another town – USA TODAY

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The Syrian Army claimed victory over the Islamic State in the town of Qaryatain on Sunday, one week after driving the militant group out of historic Palmyra.

The Army Command said retaking Qaryatain was crucial for securing oil and gas pipelines in the area and for blocking militant supply routes between Damascus and Homs, the state-controlled Syrian News Agency reported. The town also gives government forces a foothold for attacking areas along the border with Iraq held by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Army units “hunted down fleeing ISIS terrorists inside the city and dismantled scores of explosive devices and mines left behind,” SANA said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which supports neither the regime of President Bashar Assad nor the Islamic State, said warplanes were pounding the area and that Islamic State fighters were in retreat.

Qaryatain is a strategic area of less than 50,000 people with a strong Christian influence. After taking control of the town last August, the militants posted photos on social media showing bulldozers destroying the Saint Elian Monastery, which dates to the 5th century. Dozens of Christians were abducted by the extremists.

The Syrian Army, backed by Russian airstrikes and local militias bitterly opposed to the Islamic State, have been pushing hard against the militant group in its effort to carve a Sunni caliphate out of parts of Syria and Libya. A week ago, Syrian government forces recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra, 60 miles to the east. Palmyra’s priceless antiquities had been damaged or destroyed by militants who considered the revered works idolatrous.

Almost 500,000 people have been killed in Syria’s five years of civil war and bloody three-way struggles pitting the Assad’s regime, supported by Moscow, against rebels supported by a U.S.-led coalition, and the Islamic State. The United Nations estimates that 4.8 million Syrians have fled the country and another 6.6 million people have been displaced within Syria.

A tentative partial cease-fire between the regime and U.S.-backed rebels has held for more than a month. The truce does not involve the Islamic State, and that struggle has raged on.

President Obama said the U.S. would be “relentless” in its pursuit of Islamic State militants. When the cease-fire went into effect in February, Obama said the campaign would continue to target Islamic State oil infrastructure and cash stores, an effort which reportedly has led the Islamic State to cut salaries to fighters.

“As its finances shrink, ISIL is also imposing more taxes and fines on those under its brutal rule. That, in turn, stokes even more resentment among local populations,” Obama said.

Syrian troops drive Islamic State out of another town – USA TODAY

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