Syrian pro-government forces have advanced to within one kilometre of the ancient city of Palmyra and are poised to launch an assault to retake the city from jihadists.
- Clashes reported on outskirts of Palmyra
- City's recapture would be strategic victory
- Hopes Moscow talks will boost peace process
The Islamic State (IS) group overran the city dubbed the "Pearl of the Desert" last May, and has since blown up UNESCO-listed temples and looted relics dating back thousands of years.
Loyalists backed by Russian air strikes were "800 metres from Palmyra" and now control areas linking it to Damascus and Syria's third city Homs, a Syrian security source said.
"The army is now at [the southern and south-western] entrances to the city and is preparing to begin the battle to liberate Palmyra," the source said.
Earlier, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes on the outskirts of the city as government forces made advances.
Palmyra's recapture would be a strategic as well as symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad, given whoever controls it also controls the vast desert extending from central Syria to the Iraqi border, experts say.
What is Palmyra?
- UNESCO describes Palmyra as a heritage site of "outstanding universal value"
- Palmyra first entered recorded history in the early second millennium BC as a caravan stop for travellers
- The ancient city stood on a caravan route at the crossroads of several civilisations; the place where the ancient Greek and Roman worlds met the ancient Persian and Parthian worlds on the Silk Road
- Its first and second century temples and colonnaded streets mark a unique blend of Graeco-Roman and Persian influences
- It is strategically important, placed in the centre of the Syrian desert, and is the crossroads for roads going to Jordan, Iraq, and Damascus.
"We are 850 metres from Palmyra city. In a few hours [government] forces will declare the city of Palmyra completely secure, God willing," one soldier told Ikhbariya television channel, in comments echoed by his comrades on the front.
One of the soldiers said they had cleared around 120 explosives from the "Palmyra Triangle" road junction area as they approached the city from the west.
Syrian television quoted the field commander as saying the road into Palmyra was now open to government forces after they took control of hills overlooking its approaches.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said last week he was withdrawing most Russian forces, predicted on Thursday that the Syrian army would retake Palmyra soon.
Fresh bid for breakthrough
In Geneva, meanwhile, negotiators were making a fresh bid for a breakthrough ahead of a planned pause in the peace talks starting on Thursday.
There is some hope that high-level US-Russian meetings this week could deliver the momentum needed to move on to a new round.
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Russian capital ahead of meetings on Thursday with Mr Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with Syria a key issue on their agenda.
With the indirect negotiations in Geneva proving to be sluggish, all eyes are on Moscow since the two powers hold significant sway over the opposing sides in Syria's devastating conflict.
"The diplomatic process in Geneva is interconnected with what is taking place in Moscow," said the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition umbrella group.
The HNC said it hoped that after the Kremlin talks "a clear message will be sent to Bashar al-Assad: He cannot continue to paralyse the political transition that the Syrian people are demanding.
"Syria's future must be decided by the Syrian people, not by a single man," said the group, whose leader Riad Hijab — a former premier who defected in 2012 — was set to hold a first official meeting with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Wednesday.