Russia-backed Syrian army retakes strategic towns from Islamic State

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Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes regained control Monday of two strategic towns from Islamic State, a monitoring group and state media said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the forces of President Bashar al-Assad overran the villages of Maheen and Hawareen on the outskirts of the mostly Christian town of al-Qaryatain, near the ancient city of Palmyra that is controlled by Islamic State.

Syrian state media confirmed the capture of the two villages.

Maheen lies just 20 kilometres from the main road that connects the capital Damascus to northern cities including Homs.

On November 2, Islamic State seized Maheen, three months after the al-Qaeda splinter group captured al-Qaryatain, which is located in the middle of a triangle formed by the cities of Homs, Palmyra and Damascus.

Taking control of al-Qaraytain had allowed Islamic State to link areas under its grip in and around Palmyra with areas in the eastern countryside of Qalamoun in Damascus province.

Russia, an ally of al-Assad, launched airstrikes in Syria on September 30.

Al-Assad’s troops have since reported advances against rebels fighting to oust him.

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