Russian-backed Syrian government forces and their allies fought their way into Palmyra on Wednesday, driving back Islamic State militants who have held the historic city since December, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group has reported.
A Hizbullah-run media outlet earlier reported that the Syrian army and its allies had recaptured the Palmyra citadel, on the city’s western outskirts, and seized a modern palatial complex to the southwest.
Islamic State has captured Palmyra, whose ancient ruins are a Unesco world heritage site, twice during Syria's six-year conflict.
The army recaptured the city from the ultra-hardline group in March last year, but Islamic State seized it again in December.
The government and its allies lost Palmyra as they focused on defeating Syrian rebel groups in eastern Aleppo.
The group has razed ancient monuments during both of its spells in control of Palmyra - which the UN has condemned as a war crime.
A Syrian military source told Reuters earlier on Wednesday: “The army’s entry to the city will begin very soon.”
The army said it had captured an area known as the “Palmyra triangle” a few kilometres west of the city, after rapid advances in recent days backed by Russian air strikes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organisation that reports on the war, said government forces were expected to storm Palmyra at “any moment”.
Russia has said its aircraft are supporting the army offensive in Palmyra.
Meanwhile, UN investigators said on Wednesday that Syrian government aircraft deliberately bombed and strafed a humanitarian convoy last September, killing 14 aid workers and halting relief operations.
The investigators made the claim in a report identifying war crimes committed by both sides in Syria’s civil war.
Syrian and Russian forces conducted daily air strikes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo between July and its fall on December 22nd, killing hundreds and destroying hospitals, they said.
Orphanages, schools and homes were "all but obliterated" in the strikes, panel chairman Paulo Pinheiro told a news conference.
Opposition groups also shelled government-controlled western Aleppo, killing and injuring dozens, the report said.
The report said opposition groups prevented civilians from fleeing besieged eastern Aleppo, using them as human shields - which constituted a war crime.
“The scale of what happened in Aleppo is unprecedented in the Syrian conflict.
“Much of Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city and its commercial and culture centre and a Unesco world heritage site, has been reduced to rubble,” Mr Pinheiro said.
He called for an effort to ensure “those responsible for this ruinous situation one day are brought to justice”.
His team was ready to share its confidential list of suspected war criminals on all sides of the conflict with a new UN body on Syria being set up in Geneva to prepare criminal prosecutions.
“It cannot pass without having this step toward justice, because of the great numbers of victims,” panel member Carla del Ponte said.
"What we have seen here in Syria, I never saw that in Rwanda, or in former Yugoslavia, in the Balkans. It is really a big tragedy," she added.
“Unfortunately we have no tribunal.”
Cluster munitions were “pervasively used” and air-dropped into densely populated areas, the report said, amounting to the war crime of indiscriminate attacks.
“We have established very clearly in the report that the Syrian air force is responsible for these attacks, we don’t have any evidence linking Russia to those attacks with forbidden chemical weapons,” Mr Pinheiro said.
The investigators also did not attribute any specific war crime to Russian forces, but Mr Pinheiro said they would assign responsibility “if and when we can prove it”.
The UN commission of inquiry’s report - released as Syrian peace talks continue in Geneva - covers the July-December period of last year and is based on 291 interviews with victims and witnesses, as well as analysis of forensic evidence and satellite imagery.
Syrian helicopters unleashed toxic chlorine bombs “throughout 2016” on Aleppo, a weapon that caused hundreds of civilian casualties there, it said.
At least 5,000 pro-government forces had encircled eastern Aleppo in a “surrender or starve” tactic.
Thousands of civilians had to leave the city under an evacuation agreement between the warring parties that amounted to the war crime of forced displacements, it said.
“This represents - and we have said this in the past - a worrying pattern that has occurred in other areas of the country, including Deraa and Moadamiya,” Mr Pinheiro said.
The investigators accused the Syrian government of a “meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out” air strike on a UN and Syrian Red Crescent convoy at Orum al-Kubra, in rural western Aleppo on September 19th, that killed 14 aid workers.
At the time, the Syrian army and Russia denied responsibility for the attack.
A previous UN inquiry had been unable to determine who conducted the strike.
“By using air-delivered munitions with the knowledge that humanitarian workers were operating in the location, Syrian forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking humanitarian relief personnel, denial of humanitarian aid, and attacking civilians,” the report said.