Syria regime battles IS near Palmyra
PALMYRA - Syrian regime forces Wednesday battled jihadists who cut a key supply route west of ancient Palmyra, after new bombardments hit Aleppo city where a ceasefire is due to expire at midnight.
The latest fighting comes as world powers prepare to meet in Vienna next week to try to revive peace talks aimed at ending a five-year conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the Islamic State (IS) group on Tuesday cut the main road from Homs city to Palmyra just weeks after the army recaptured the city, a UNESCO world heritage site.
A military source told the SANA official news agency that the Syrian air force had carried out strikes against IS around the main facility in the Shaer gas field northwest of Palmyra.
A security source told AFP: "Military operations are ongoing in the Shaer gas field," which is one of the biggest in the central province of Homs.
Both sides have been battling each other in the desert around Palmyra since IS was ousted from the city in late March.
The jihadist group last week seized the Shaer gas field from the regime.
- Palmyra surrounded -
President Bashar al-Assad's troops retook Palmyra with support from Russian air strikes on March 27 -- an achievement his regime celebrated with concerts in its ancient amphitheatre last week.
But today IS surrounds Palmyra from all directions except the southwest, the head of the Observatory said, adding that IS was within 10 kilometres (around six miles) of the city.
Rami Abdel Rahman said the group was "attempting to surround regime forces in Palmyra and isolate the city from its surroundings".
In the northern battleground city of Aleppo, an AFP correspondent said the city's rebel-held east was calm on Wednesday after fighting overnight.
A local truce -- brokered by Russia and the United States after a spike in violence in the city last month -- is set to expire at midnight on Wednesday.
The former economic hub has been divided between the regime-held west and rebel-controlled east since 2012.
Two people were wounded early Wednesday when regime aircraft strafed rebel positions in two eastern neighbourhoods with heavy machinegun fire, an AFP correspondent reported.
Late Tuesday, government warplanes struck two other rebel-held neighbourhoods, the correspondent added.
Rebel rocket fire hit two government-controlled districts in the west of the city, the Observatory said.
Rebel sniper fire killed a garbage collector late Tuesday, SANA reported.
A local truce took effect in Aleppo last Thursday after a surge in fighting killed more than 300 people in the city and threatened to unravel a nationwide ceasefire between regime forces and non-jihadist rebels in force since February.
The truce has led to a sharp reduction in the death toll. Rebel rocket fire on government neighbourhoods killed three civilians on Sunday but otherwise it has largely held.
It has been extended twice after 11th-hour diplomatic intervention from major powers, but there was no immediate word of any new extension ahead of Wednesday's expiry time.
- Last obstetrician dies -
In the rebel-held bastion of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, the area's last obstetrician and gynaecologist has died of wounds sustained during fighting between rebels around the city of Douma, the Observatory said.
Moscow and Washington pledged on Monday to redouble efforts to shore up the nationwide truce and reach a political settlement to the conflict.
The February 27 ceasefire applies to all areas except those where IS and Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, are present.
Britain, France, the United States and Ukraine on Tuesday blocked a Russian request to add two rebel groups to a UN terror blacklist and sideline them from the peace process.
Russia had requested that Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Ahrar al-Sham be added to the sanctions list for their ties to Al-Qaeda and IS.
Jaish al-Islam is a member of the opposition group that has taken part in peace negotiations in Geneva.
It counts the group's chief negotiator Mohammed Alloush among its members.
Russia's foreign ministry on Tuesday said global powers would gather in Vienna on May 17 to discuss the crisis in Syria.
The civil war has displaced millions since it erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.