DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes advanced swiftly in central Syria on Wednesday, seizing high ground around Palmyra and positioning themselves to recapture the historic town held by the Islamic State group.
The troops, supported by pro-government militias, approached to within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of the town, according to state TV. A Lebanese television station close to Damascus broadcast footage of the troops advancing single-file through a desert as helicopter gunships provided cover.
“God willing, within a few hours we will enter and secure the town,” one officer told the Syrian Ikhbariya TV, as a group of soldiers broke into chants in support of President Bashar Assad. The station was broadcasting live from a road reportedly on the outskirts of Palmyra.
The town is home to impressive Roman-era ruins and was one of Syria’s leading tourist attractions before the 2011 uprising. IS captured Palmyra last May and has destroyed some of the ancient monuments.
In Geneva, meanwhile, the EU foreign policy chief held a rare meeting with Syria’s U.N. ambassador, who is leading the government’s delegation at U.N.-mediated peace talks.
Federica Mogherini said Brussels still insists on a political transition in Damascus as part of efforts to wind down the five-year civil war.
“Obviously not all our exchanges were consensual. But I thought it was important to bring the EU consolidated position that we expect the political process and transition to start,” she told reporters.
Since the outbreak of the civil war, European diplomats have rarely met with Syrian officials, many of whom are subject to U.S. and EU sanctions.
The government forces have been advancing on Palmyra since last week. Recapturing the town would be a major victory for Assad. Russia began withdrawing 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 the government’s favor.
Moscow says it will keep its bases in Syria and continue to carry out airstrikes against IS and other extremists.
Syrian forces are pushing in from the west and south of Palmyra and are also closing in on the IS-held town of Qaryatain in central Syria, Homs governor Talal Barazi said.
“There is continuous progress by the army from all directions,” Barazi told The Associated Press by phone, adding that he expected “positive results” over the next few days.
IS destroyed many of Palmyra’s Roman-era relics, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the iconic Arch of Triumph. It also killed dozens of captive Syrian soldiers and dissidents in public slayings at the town’s grand Roman theater and other ruins.
IS also demolished Palmyra’s infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian government opponents had been imprisoned and tortured over the years.
The advance on IS comes as a Russian and U.S. brokered cease-fire that took effect late last month has largely quieted other fronts in the country’s complex civil war. IS and other extremist groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, are excluded from the truce, which is intended to support the peace talks underway in Geneva.
On Wednesday, Syria’s U.N. ambassador and head of the government team, Bashar Ja’afari, said he was handed a proposal by U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Ja’afari told reporters in Geneva that the government side would take the proposal back to Damascus and study it, and would respond during the next round of negotiations, tentatively scheduled for April. The delegation will meet with De Mistura again Thursday, the last scheduled day of talks before the pause.
The negotiations have been held up over the question of Assad’s role in any political transition. The opposition has said Assad must step down as a precondition to any transition, while the government has refused to discuss his departure.
The U.N. envoy said Tuesday that the two parties had not yet discussed Assad’s future.
Also on Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that more than 70,000 people had received the first aid delivery in months in the central city of al-Houla.
It said a joint convoy of the ICRC, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations on Tuesday reached several villages in the region of al-Houla, north of Homs, to deliver food, medicine and water equipment.
The people of the city “have been facing severe hardship for a long time,” said the ICRC’s head of office in Homs, Majda Flihi, who led the aid delivery team. “They are farmers but they cannot farm anymore. They have livestock but it cannot be fed properly as peoples’ fields have now become front lines.”
Syrian authorities removed surgical items from the convoy, a U.N. spokesman said Tuesday, aggravating efforts to deliver lifesaving medical assistance to the besieged areas.
Al-Houla has been under siege since 2012 and has been the scene of heavy fighting for months. The recent lull has allowed humanitarian organizations to access the area.
Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.