BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces have seized three neighborhoods inside Palmyra, a town with famed Roman-era ruins that fell to the Islamic State group last May, state media reported Saturday.
Syrian troops and allied militiamen backed by Russian airstrikes have taken up positions in the three neighborhoods that are part of the modern town, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
Palmyra, affectionately known as the "bride of the desert," used to attract tens of thousands of tourists every year. IS drove out government forces in a matter of days and later demolished some of the best-known monuments in the UNESCO world heritage site. The extremists believe ancient ruins promote idolatry.
Retaking the town would be a major victory for President Bashar Assad's government and its allies, which have made steady gains in recent months against IS and other insurgents, including Western-backed rebels.
The battle for Palmyra, now entering its fourth week according to the Observatory, has not been easy. Government forces lost at least 18 soldiers on Friday alone, including a major general, the Observatory and IS-affiliated media sites reported. Another 10 soldiers were killed Saturday.
Footage broadcast on Lebanese stations aligned with the Syrian government showed smoke rising over Palmyra's skyline, as tanks and helicopters fired at positions inside the town. IS began evacuating civilians this week to other parts of its territories in Syria. No civilians remain in the town, a Palmyra resident who left earlier this week told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.
The fate of the archaeological site was not immediately clear. Activists citing sources among advancing government forces said the two sides were fighting over the area, while the Observatory said government forces had retaken the site.
Syrian state media made no mention of the area.