Beirut: Islamic State fighters were on the retreat in the strategic Syrian city of Palmyra on Friday, as the United States said it likely killed several senior leaders of the militant group this week including its top finance officer.
The double blow to the hardline Islamist group in its self-declared caliphate, which covers huge areas of Syria and Iraq, came three days after Islamic State suicide bombers killed 31 people in Brussels, the worst such attack in Belgian history.
Syrian soldiers fighting to retake the desert city of Palmyra from Islamic State forces recaptured its old citadel on Friday, various media reported. The citadel overlooks some of the most extensive ruins of the Roman empire.
Many of Palmyra`s temples and tombs have been dynamited by Islamic State fighters in what the United Nations described as a war crime, although television footage on Friday showed at least some colonnades and structures still standing.
The recapture of Palmyra, which the Islamist militants seized in May 2015, would mark the biggest reversal for Islamic State in Syria since Russia`s intervention turned the tide of the five-year conflict in President Bashar al-Assad`s favour.
The city controls routes east into the heartland of territory held by the militants, including the province of Deir al-Zor and the Islamic State`s de facto capital, Raqqa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Friday an Islamic State leader was killed when his car was targeted in a strike on Raqqa on Thursday night.
It did not identify the dead militant, but U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the United States believed it killed Haji Iman - an alias for Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, a senior Islamic State leader in charge of the group`s finances, and Abu Sarah, who Carter said was charged with paying fighters in northern Iraq.
U.S. special forces carried out the strike against Haji Iman, officials told Reuters. One of the officials said the plan was to capture, not kill, him. But after the commandos` helicopter was fired on, the decision was made to fire from the air.
"We are systematically eliminating ISIL`s cabinet," Carter told reporters at a briefing at the Pentagon, using an acronym to refer to the group.
U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the briefing the deaths reflected "indisputable" new momentum in the fight against Islamic State.
Iraq`s military said on Friday that Iraqi Yazidi and tribal fighters had taken a border area in the Sinjar region next to Syria from Islamic State, cutting an important supply line for the militants.
U.S. officials said they were helping Iraqis prepare for a major operation in Mosul to take back more territory from the militant group.