Syrian army announces recapture of Palmyra from Islamic State

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army said on Thursday it had recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State for the second time in a year, with help from allied forces and Russian warplanes.

Islamic State seized Palmyra in a surprise advance in December, after having been driven out eight months before.

"With backing from the Syrian and Russian air forces, units of our armed forces recaptured the city of Palmyra, in cooperation with the allies," the military said in a statement.

The army and Iranian-backed militia advanced inside Palmyra on Thursday as Islamic State withdrew completely, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said.

Islamic State militants retreated to areas in the east, the Observatory reported. Government forces took control of swathes of Palmyra and conducted combing operations to clear mines on Thursday, it said.

During Islamic State's first occupation which ended in March last year, the ultra-hardline jihadist group destroyed some of Palmyra's priceless archaeological heritage. It is believed to have razed other parts of the historical ruins after regaining control in December.

The Syrian army is also fighting Islamic State east of Aleppo city, where it is pushing to reach the Euphrates river, and in the city of Deir al-Zor, where it controls an enclave besieged by the militants.

Islamic State is on the back foot in Syria after losing territory in the north to an alliance of U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led militias, and to Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups.

Government and opposition delegations are attending U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva, where the government's chief negotiator hailed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for keeping his promise to retake Palmyra.

The Syrian opposition however declined to congratulate Assad on capturing Palmyra and suggested the sight of the city changing hands again was risible.

(Reporting By Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut, additional reporting by Tom Miles, John Irish, and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva,; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Dominic Evans)