Russian air strikes near Palmyra as Syrian troops advance: monitor

A Syrian soldier fires artillery shells towards Islamic State (IS) fighters during the 2015 battle for Palmyra (AFP Photo/)

Beirut (AFP) - Russian helicopters pounded jihadist positions around the ancient city of Palmyra on Tuesday as Syrian troops pressed a ground advance, a monitoring group said.

"Russian helicopters and warplanes, that are likely Russian, are bombarding Islamic State group positions near Palmyra," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

"These strikes have allowed regime troops to advance, and they are now four kilometres (2.5 miles) south and west of Palmyra," he told AFP.

The strikes came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the pullout of the "main part" of his forces from the war-torn country.

A security source in Syria confirmed the monitor's report.

"The Syrian army, backed by Russian warplane and helicopter strikes, have taken control of a hilltop to the west of Palmyra after a fierce battle against IS, which still holds the city," he said.

Should the regime retake Palmyra, "it would be an important victory because it would open the way towards the Iraqi border", he added.

IS seized Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern Syria known as the "Pearl of the Desert", last May, sending shockwaves across the world.

In September, satellite images confirmed that the Temple of Bel, the main one at Palmyra, had been targeted by IS as part of a campaign to destroy pre-Islamic monuments, tombs and statues it considers idolatrous.

UN experts said the main building of the temple plus a row of columns had been destroyed.

The Observatory also reported that 26 civilians had been killed on March 11 when a Russian air strike hit a bus in the Palmyra region which as on its way from IS-held Raqa to Damascus.