Syria army battles ISIS jihadists near Palmyra
BEIRUT - 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 was 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 (ISIS) 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 ISIS around the main facility in the Shaer gas field, northwest of Palmyra.
A security source said: "Military operations are ongoing in the Shaer gas field."
ISIS last week seized the Shaer gas field -- one of the biggest in the central province of Homs -- from the regime.
Both sides have been battling each other in the desert around Palmyra since the jihadist group was ousted from the city in late March.
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 ISIS now surrounds Palmyra from all directions except the southwest, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that ISIS was within 10 kilometres (around six miles) of the city.
In Deir Ezzor province further east, at least seven civilians were killed, including a child, in regime air strikes on an area held by ISIS.
They died in "regime air strikes on the Shuhail district in the east of Deir Ezzor province targeting a health facility and other areas in the district", the Observatory said.
The Russian defence ministry's coordination centre in Syria meanwhile said there had been five breaches of a ceasefire in Aleppo over last 24 hours, killing eight civilians.
The local truce -- brokered by Russia and the United States after a spike in violence in the city last month -- was set to expire at midnight on Wednesday.
It has previously been extended twice after 11th-hour diplomatic intervention from major powers, but there was no immediate word of any new extension.
While the truce has brought casualties down, violence has by no means come to a halt.
Two civilians in a rebel-held area of Aleppo were killed when a regime air strike hit their vehicle, according to civil defence volunteers.
The Observatory meanwhile said a woman and a child in the regime-held west of Aleppo were killed in shelling.
The former economic hub has been divided between the regime-held west and rebel-controlled east since 2012.
The latest truce took effect 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.
In the rebel-held bastion of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, the area's last obstetrician and gynaecologist died of wounds sustained during fighting between rebels around the city of Douma, the Observatory said.
The foreign ministry in Russia, where media reports said Wednesday one of its soldiers had been fatally wounded by rebel fire in the central province of Homs, has said global powers would gather in Vienna on May 17 to discuss the crisis in Syria.
Moscow and Washington pledged on Monday to redouble efforts to shore up the nationwide ceasefire and reach a political settlement to the conflict.
The February 27 ceasefire applies to all areas except those where ISIS and Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, are present.
Britain, France, the US and Ukraine on Tuesday blocked a Russian request to add two rebel groups -- Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Ahrar al-Sham -- to a UN terror blacklist and sideline them from the peace process.
The main opposition group that has taken part in peace negotiations in Geneva counts Jaish al-Islam member Mohammed Alloush as its chief negotiator.
Since it erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011, the civil war has also pushed millions to flee the country.